Image is Everything

Monday, April 11, 2011

Before Sunday evening, I didn’t realize that the word ‘image’ meant quite so many things. I found twenty two definitions for this little word. For this post, I’m interested in the physical, mental and symbolic connotations for storytelling purposes.

Physical representation is simply what the character looks like. Most of the time we see this through the eyes of other characters. I can only think of two instances where I expand on what a character looks like through their own thoughts. In Contraband, I used the characters eyes and their effect on other people.  I did it like so:
After a stretch of unyielding silence, Sarge stepped back and waved Paul to one of the seats. Paul sat, folded his arms, and waited, aware that his appearance bothered Sarge.  As far back as he could remember, his unusual looks disturbed people around him...But the color of his irises made him different. They tended to shift according to his mood, and on the island, people viewed eyes like his with awe and suspicion.  The islanders believed those born with gray eyes had supernatural powers. In addition, they made a startling contrast with his wiry hair and swarthy skin. 

Word to the wise: Your character can look like a narcissistic idiot if you do the looking in the mirror thing. (Couldn’t resist that)

Then there is the way in which others think about your main character, which is important. Nothing says more about a character than how others see him. Is he brisk, but polite?  Is he firm, but fair? Is he businesslike, but takes time to listen? Think about someone you’ve heard spoken about before you met them.  Didn’t the 411 – or as we say in Jamaica, the bill and receipt - on them colour your opinion of their character?  IMO this is an effective way of rounding out your character. It’s one thing to see how he thinks of himself, and quite another to know what people think of him.

Then there is the perception we attach to certain positions and people. We tend not to look too far beyond stereotypes. If someone dresses for success then we may not look any further than physical evidence before we draw our own conclusion. Many an unsuspecting person has been scammed by well-dressed, articulate people.  We may equate a man of sartorial elegance with a certain type of behavior, and think the same of a well-heeled woman, only to be shocked senseless by crass behavior from one or the other of them. Our politicians in Jamaica are a good example of this. They look good (maybe a tad overfed when their party is in power) and sound good…up until the time of the next scandal. And we keep voting for them.

But to get back on point, these are the main ways I show readers who my character is. One other method I use is to show how the character sees himself. In Contraband, my protagonist  recognizes that he’s made some dangerous choices, but he knows why and bargains with himself as to when he’ll give up trading in illegal merchandise. You can’t get a better view of a character than when he takes an honest look at himself.

What other ways do you give readers an accurate picture of your characters?

Useful links:

Irish Potatoes
I couldn’t find anything foodwise for ‘I’, so I’ll have to cheat.  The Irish potato is used in many of our meals including soup and meat dishes (eg. Curried goat), but we make great use of it as baby food. We call it crushed Irish, the same thing Americans call mashed potatoes. We boil and then crush the potatoes with milk and butter. You can make a nice pattern on top with the tines of a fork. I loved this as a child, gave it to my son when he was a baby and still enjoy it today. You can’t beat the combination of potatoes and lotsa butter! The pic below is not a 100% accurate representation as it has cabbage. That image came from here.


  1. I enjoyed your excerpt. This works out so well by letting the reader know what he looks like through other people's eyes and reveals important qualities at the same time. Nice! Also, I like how you point out that we can weave the descriptions in by the character's own perception of himself or how others view him. I also like your writing style. Nice voice.
    Lynn Kelley

  2. i like the ways you have explained to help us see the character. I like the mirror way in certain situations. It can show how the character feels about himself. Is he looking at himself with disgust, pride, arrogance....

  3. Thanks for breaking this up. I never really thought about it before.

  4. Wow, I didn't know that there were so many definitions of "image." That's crazy! I loved your excerpt, and you're right...there are many ways to get an image of your characters. "Word to the wise: Your character can look like a narcissistic idiot if you do the looking in the mirror thing. (Couldn’t resist that)" My main character is a narcissistic idiot, and that's exactly what I have him doing! I laughed at how you pointed that out. :-D Great "I" post.

  5. Lyn, thanks for your kind words.

    Josh, yes, it's important to know how a character views himself.

    No problem, Siv. I like looking at things from various angles.

    Sarah, I wonder if you're writing YA from your 'narcissistic idiot' comment. :D

  6. Great post about character image. Is there anyone who doesn't love mashed potatoes with loads of butter? HUNGRY!

  7. Nice post. So true about the protag looking in the mirror...doesn't ever work for me.

  8. Carole, I could use some mashed potatoes right now.

    Jennifer, I avoid the man-in-the-mirror descriptions as much as possible.

  9. I really like the method of showing what your character is like through OTHER characters' eyes, but that's a tough one when you're writing in first person!

  10. I love the mirror description, especially in the first sentence of the book. It says, "Look at me look at myself," and is the perfect opportunity for authors to tell us about those emerald green eyes and chocolate hair.

    But really, my new favorite way to describe the character is to jump into someone else's POV for a paragraph and have them do it. To make it less awkward, I have their reasoning be that they are writing a bio for a character in a book based on my character.

    I also started doing the fortune cookie reveal--a character reads their fortune, but it's really a description of how they look.


    I can't help but cringe at reading a lot of author's work anymore, because it almost always follows a cliche blueprint. Witty opening comment followed by the character who said it followed by their description followed by the person they said it to followed by that person's description, and after about 2,000 words, I finally begin reading the actual story.

    I think one problem might be people thinking they have to describe everything.

    Great topic though because this is a major problem that's bringing the quality of books way down.

  11. Great excerpt. I try to avoid mirrors, but don't completely avoid them for my characters. I pay attention to other people's image of the characters.

  12. I love mashed potatoes (but then I'm Irish, so who's really surprised?) :)

  13. Rachel, first person does pose a challenge. I suppose your character would need to be reliable for the reader to believe all that he's told.

    CP, writing is plain hard work!

    Medeia, I know what you mean. When my characters look in the mirror, it's using to think about their situation, they aren't really 'seeing' themselves.

    Thanks for dropping in, Christina.

  14. I like the way you've talked about image. It's often better to glean little by little about the character through other character's eyes.


    BTW, the crusade will be finishing soon for another year and I'm thinking of starting a #RomanceFriday group, like a blog hop where romance writers can post a short short, an excerpt on whatever theme/idea we come up with for the week. Early stages, just gauging interest. I'm working through the list of romance crusaders. There would be no number limit. Let me know :D

  15. Your character can look like a narcissistic idiot if you do the looking in the mirror thing.

    Absolutely ..LOL!!! Thanks for the tips. Much appreciated.

  16. Denise, thanks, I also think it's a good technique to show a little about a character each time as the story goes on.

    Damyanti, no problem! :)

  17. It's good to have characters that have a very individual look - like Harry Potter, Huck Finn or Poppy Longstocking, you'd identify them immediately if you saw them on the street.
    Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

  18. So true, Charmaine. Thanks for stopping in.


Don't be shy, I'd love to hear what you think.