Building Characters – Physical Attributes

I’m in the process of dispensing wisdom from Jeff Gerke’s book  Plot vs. Character. Today I’ll continue discussing the physical attributes for your character.

Gender: This is a no-brainer, but Jeff brings up an interesting idea: what would your character be like if you switched her gender? A female bouncer at a night club or a male nanny might be fun. But chose the gender that best works for the story.

Race and Ethnicity: Use your character’s race and ethnicity to add tension. Take an ENTJ character (someone who takes charge of any situation) and make her of a minority ethnicity or an enslaved people and see how her natural leadership expresses itself in her confines. Or think about cultural distinctives inherent in a race and go against stereotype (African-American rapper, Asian scientist, Hispanic cowboy). How would being Asian affect a boy who dreams of becoming a professional basketball player? Are there pressures on your character to pursue a certain line of education or work? Are there restrictions on her activities or friends or choices of mate due to her ethnic background? Think of the people groups in high school (jock, geek, band, brainiac) and how your character would react to being in one of these. Think of your character’s culture. Is he a voracious Greek man? A repressed Jew? A quiet blond woman of Swedish descent who keeps to herself? Be aware of the influence these cultures may have on your character, and use them wisely.

Age: Age is both objective and subjective (the 42-year-old man who acts like a 14-year-old boy, or the 15-year-old girl who acts like a 35-year-old woman). It might be interesting to make your character the “wrong” age for the story you’re telling: a Doogie Howser child prodigy or an octogenarian heading back to college. Whatever age you make your character, it’s got to fit the story.

Physical Attractiveness: Not every character can be stunning. Nor should they all be hideous. Variety is important. Also remember that people are judged by their appearance, despite the adage to not do so. Attractive women find more dates than homely ones. Characters with deformities, especially in the face, may make others feel uneasy. Also keep in mind how this attractiveness or lack thereof affects the character. Is she aware of her beauty or non-beauty? Does she want to do something about it (exercise more, invest in plastic surgery, spend a fortune on clothing and makeup, etc)? The physical attributes of a person have an impact on his personality, so use that in your book.

Face, Hair, Eyes, and Complexion: Depending on ethnicity, you might not have a ton of variety here, but you need to know what your character looks like, even if you never describe her in the story. How does she wear her hair and why does she choose that style? Does she color it? Style it to match trends? Comb it once and ignore it for the rest of the day? Tie it back in a bun? Keep her temperament in mind. Someone who’s practical like an ESTJ would wear a no-nonsense hairstyle, whereas an outgoing ESFP might wear her hair like she’s going to party all year long. Also factor in the character’s culture and whether she wants to fit into that culture. For men, consider facial hair and hair coloring. Would your character hide the gray? Wear a goatee or a soul-patch? Don’t forget skin: acne scars or baby smooth, dark or light, freckles, wrinkles, age spots? These things affect how a person acts. Just ask the kid with acne all over his face. 

Clothing and Style: What look is your character going for? How does she want the world to view her? Or does she even care how others see her? How successful is she at achieving her targeted look? And don’t forget the accessories: jewelry, hats, scarves, shoes, and iPods all tell the reader something about the character. What is she trying to say or achieve or make others believe by the way she dresses, why is she trying to do this, and how successful are her efforts?

Other Stuff To Consider: This is the catch-all area for things that didn’t fit in the categories above. Does your character walk with a limp? Missing a limb? Birthmarks? Asymmetry in face or body? Long legs and short torso? Remember that even the slightest details can impact your character’s personality.

In the next post I’ll look at natural attributes, those things your character is born with.

-Sonja
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