3 Simple Ways to Use Photos to Establish Characters

3 Simple Ways to Use Photos to Establish Characters

I need my characters to come to life quickly for me and this time, I’m trying a shortcut. Photos.

It’s easy to go to google.com/images or flickr.com and search for images that might fit your characters. Start with a gender (male/female) and age (child, teen, adult, senior, 30s, 40s, etc).

Ethnic background. For my story, I knew that one character had a mixed-ethnic background, combining Asian and Caucasian heritage. What I didn’t know was how strong the genes might be on either side of that, and how they might change for different Asian/northern European mixes. Even better, I found personal stories of growing up multicultural. Sites like this make it easier to add a unique richness to a character, avoiding stereotypes that might result from a specific ethnic background.

Physical description. Frankly, my physical descriptions have gotten stale. I’m not particularly visually oriented and inventing characters physical looks is usually last on my list of writing chores. I keep thinking, “But it’s the inner character that matters.” Of course. But physical looks matter, too. I took several photos and really observed closely, trying for fresh descriptions. Here are three boys. How would you describe each one to make him come alive as a character?



Historical photos. Photos are gold when you are writing historical fiction. Notice details of clothing, shoes, hair styles, setting, surroundings, etc. and use these details as you write.

1971 Tallahassee Civil Rights march. Notice the variety of clothing--great stuff to add to your story.
1971 Tallahassee Civil Rights march. Notice the variety of clothing–great stuff to add to your story.

What’s your favorite way to use photos to establish characters?

4 responses to “3 Simple Ways to Use Photos to Establish Characters”

  1. Great post! Pinterest helps me SO MUCH with this. Of course, it can also take up a lot of time… but it really helps to create that storyboard for each of the tales I tell.

  2. Me too! I am also not super visual, so I have folders in my scrivener file for each work that have pictures of people, as well as places and objects. It’s been really helpful for me.

  3. I “cast” my stories. For some reason, I choose actors as my visual cues. I think in part that is because something I have seen of their work resonates with what I am trying to portray. Sometimes it is the actor himself, and sometimes it is a specific still shot that just captures something I needed to give me the image I need. And sometimes that gives me something much more than I expected – or bargained for.
    In the book I am currently writing I chose a particular actor as my visual cue for a character because he had the “look” I wanted. But that affected the character I was writing, too. He was just going to be a walk-on; I needed someone to bring my main character onto a scene. But because of the “baggage” of the roles I’ve seen the actor play, suddenly he became much more than a throwaway – he has become a major secondary character, and in the process he has made my story so much richer!
    In the same book, I chose another actor to represent both my villain and another major secondary. This actor (I’ll tell – it’s Christian Bale) is so versatile in his range that he was the only person I could envision for each of the characters. They are, in fact, two sides of a coin, but I hadn’t known that when I chose the pictures.
    Oddly enough, there has been no such influence from the actress I chose to visually portray my protagonist. She has the “look” of the strong and determined woman I wanted, with the right features and coloring, but there has been no input or impact beyond the physical appearance. Funny how it worked out!