We’ve all heard about people who describe their characters too much, too florid, often when it really doesn’t make sense to do so; I think most of us can agree that that’s generally a bad idea. But some people have the opposite difficulty; they can settle down in a character’s head, dredge up personality, skills, role, and just about everything, and in general create a well-realized character—but not have the foggiest idea what she looks like. I’ll admit, I’m actually one of those people at heart; you wouldn’t know it in my game, since the players always ask what everyone looks like, but during my last novel attempt, I realized I didn’t have a solid image for either of my viewpoint characters or the two major named characters I introduced. Oops.
So what sorts of steps can you take to get from a personality to a visual description?
Start with what you know. Whether it’s a full-stat character sheet, or just a vague synopsis of what the character’s capable of and how she works, there’s bound to be something in there that can get you started. Knowing how old the character is, for instance, might inform how old she looks. If you know what people from where she’s from generally look like, you can figure out how much like a local she looks and use that; same with social rank indicators, tools of her trade, so on and so forth. It might even just be random details, like favorite color.
If you’ve already got images for one or more characters, are there any similarities or contrasts you can play with? I mostly use this trick with contrasts, or to create similarities between two characters that highlight the more important contrasts between them (age difference comes to mind, as I have three different characters whom I use to play off of concepts of visual age vs. chronological age and/or emotional maturity).
Are there any personality traits you want the image to hint at? If you’re having trouble with hairstyle, clothing, jewelry or the like, this is an excellent question to ask yourself. For instance, there’s a lot of imagery that goes into hair; someone with hair that gets in her face is assumed to be shy, while one who ties it back particularly tightly is often seen as emotionally repressed or needing to feel in control. Characters might also do this to themselves—there are those who wear clothing as a sort of social armor, use it to fade into the background, treat it as a neon sign; ones who don’t want anyone to know what they really look like, and others who have good reasons to wear fake-looking contact lenses. Both of my last two Sketchbook characters, Procopia and Natesa, are examples of this; Procopia was trying to subtly emphasize her age, Natesa her rank and respectability.
If you’ve got a decent number of characters, you might be able to make a few of the surface decisions by emphasizing variety. It doesn’t work if you’ve got a culture full of homogeneous phenotypes, mind, but in a full mixing pot you might be able to say, “All right, my last three were dark-haired, and before that we had a redhead; why don’t I put a couple people in the blonde to light brown range this time?”
They won’t fill in everything, but putting together enough of these might give you sufficient image to derive the rest of the details yourself.