Alan Titchmarsh is the Prime Minister of Canada – using pictures to bring characters alive

It’s often a struggle to bring a character alive the first time they appear in a book. Here’s one of the things I do

I once made Alan Titchmarsh the Prime Minister of Canada.

I hope he’d be amused to know that, and let me make it clear that it was only in the privacy of my study and the pages I was writing. I was ghosting a novel and needed to drum up a distinguished-looking presence for a few scenes. I didn’t have an internet connection to look up the real PM so I flicked through a magazine, happened on a picture of gardening broadcaster and novelist Mr Titchmarsh – and the vibe from it was exactly what I needed. The Prime Minister of Canada came alive on the page.

One of the things that can trip us up when we’re writing a scene is when we need to describe something we haven’t yet given any thought to. It’s easy enough to get visual prompts for physical places. But characters – who don’t really exist except in our heads – can be tougher.


Stephanie Ebbert of the blog Beyond The Margins wrote a short while ago about finding a picture of someone who looks like the character in your WIP. I’ve been doing this for years. I hoard faces for future use, a mugshot gallery of people I want to cast in novels. It’s rarely about such literal characteristics as eye colour and nose shape. I choose them for their expression – something that suggests the way they talk, what they care about and who they will be friends with.

Mr Titchmarsh is an unusual addition to my mugshot library. Most of them are not famous folk, as they come with obvious associations. What I’m looking for is someone into whom my character can descend, like a spirit, or someone who already carries an essence of them. I’m probably the only person who is fascinated by magazine pictures of people I do not know at all, wondering if they could inhabit one of my worlds. Flickr’s another great resource too.

The pictures with this post are some of the characters from my literary novel, My Memories of a Future Life. I’ve long forgotten who they really are or where I found them. Now they are a pianist, a hypnotist and an artist and their destinies are intricately connected.

Do you have pictures of your main characters? If you do, let’s try an experiment – post them on your blog, if copyright or confidentiality allows – and post a link in the comments.

In the meantime, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you… the Prime Minister of Canada.


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  1. #1 by Sally on May 1, 2011 - 7:03 pm

    Wow, what an interesting idea. You have a very artsy approach to building your literary universes. I’ve never done anything like this, though I used to sketch images of faces (badly) on paper many years ago, and have been inspired looks-wise from other characters or people I’ve seen before.

    • #2 by rozmorris on May 1, 2011 - 7:23 pm

      Thanks, Sally. When you start to look, ordinary folks in magazines can be very fascinating…

  2. #3 by tonicreatesart on May 1, 2011 - 7:47 pm

    Love this idea! As a fan of Mr. Titchmarsh, I can totally see him as the PM of Canada, discussing the gardening. 🙂 Thanks for another fabulous revelation, Roz!

    • #4 by rozmorris on May 1, 2011 - 7:50 pm

      Yay, Toni! Someone who understands!

  3. #5 by Patti Larsen on May 1, 2011 - 8:54 pm

    *giggle* Sorry, as a Canuck… this is freaking hilarious and very well timed–we’re in the middle of an election and HATE our PM. We’ll take him! 😉

    • #6 by rozmorris on May 2, 2011 - 8:26 am

      Thanks, Patti! Another Canadian friend has been voting for him too in the post I put on my Facebook page! Happy election!

  4. #7 by Zelah on May 1, 2011 - 10:15 pm

    An interesting idea. 🙂

    I generally see my plots being acted out in my mind as I’m writing them (in fact, I think I always do!) Sometimes the character’s features are hazy & then I’ll either settle on an appearance for them or cast them in my mind. For example, I’ve just done Scriptfrenzy again & most of the characters are just generic made-up actors in my head – but the heroine got cast early on as Keira Knightley because she was just right for the part.

    I’ll also cast normal people in plots, not as themselves but as characters that I think they could play well. This is a step up from that and one I’m tempted to have a go at! In fact, I’ve already got a couple of images saved that I came across when looking for inspiration for arty/crafty projects, so I’ve already made a start without realising it!

    I’ve been thinking of having a bash later in the year at doing a belated NaShoStoMo I only heard about it towards the end of April and was already working on Scriptfrenzy but it sounds incredibly difficult, especially since I naturally lean towards at least novella length stories! So, being someone who likes a challenge (and a little bit crazy) I thought the whole trying to write a short story of at least 200 words each day for a month thing would be good practice.

    I doubt I’ll manage it but I want to give it my best shot anyway & this is another string to my inspiration bow, so thank you!

    • #8 by rozmorris on May 2, 2011 - 8:27 am

      Hi Zelah! Gosh, you’re prolific. Yes, this exercise is so much fun you could almost do it for its own sake.

      • #9 by Zelah on May 2, 2011 - 11:44 am

        When I say I’ve done Scripfrenzy again, I mean, having completed it in previous years I’ve done it this year – not that I’ve done it twice this year! I can be prolific (when I don’t have a small baby to look after!) and it’s not inconceivable that I could do Scriptfrenzy twice in a month – but as it is, on this occasion I didn’t!

  5. #10 by Frume Sarah on May 2, 2011 - 4:58 am

    This post could not have come along at a more timely moment as I just wrote my very first piece of fiction a fortnight ago. That is, the first piece since I was in grammar school 😉

    I am definitely going to give this a shot and see how it infuses another dimension into my character.

    Thanks so very much!

    • #11 by rozmorris on May 2, 2011 - 8:29 am

      Thanks, Sarah – and good luck with rediscovering writing. You may not realise what a life habit you’ve started…

  6. #12 by Tony McFadden on May 2, 2011 - 12:35 pm

    I definitely do this. In the character sheets in scrivener for the three main characters of G’Day LA (Ellie, Joel and Bart) I spent a couple of days scouring Google images until I found the faces that ‘felt’ the way the character should feel and imbedded them in the character sheets. It was handy to flip back to those pages while writing…

    • #13 by rozmorris on May 2, 2011 - 7:25 pm

      It’s definitely a ‘feel’ thing, isn’t it, Tony? Character sheets is an interesting idea. I still use scraps of paper.

  7. #14 by Glynis Smy on May 2, 2011 - 12:44 pm

    Interesting post. I enjoy searching for the character that sits in my head. It is a great feeling when I come across an image and can say ‘That’s Kitty or Wow, it’s my William’.

    I find describing characters one of the hard parts of writing. I admire those who can bring a face alive with words. I have to leave it to the imagination of my reader by dropping a few hints.

    • #15 by rozmorris on May 2, 2011 - 7:27 pm

      Hi Glynis! Yes, I envy those people who can conjure a face so effectively.

  8. #16 by DazyDayWriter on May 6, 2011 - 3:01 pm

    Great idea, Roz. And you’ll be pleased (and shocked) to know I had a short story published (I know, don’t faint) by a college journal. A rewrite of a story from 2003 — I, in fact, uncovered an entire short story collection from that era still in draft form, so this summer I may be doing some revising/editing. Bringing some characters back to life, perhaps! But this week, I’m revising a newer short story about a man who lost his young son and your picture idea could definitely help. Thanks for your brilliance, as always! Have a lovely weekend. –Daisy

    • #17 by rozmorris on May 7, 2011 - 8:29 am

      Daisy, always lovely to see you here – and what exciting news. I shall have to hop over to your blog to get the lowdown. Plus, I think you may well have inspired a blog post for me – so double thanks for popping over to leave a comment. Have fun with the pictures.

  9. #18 by Jeffrey Russell on May 6, 2011 - 8:34 pm

    I never thought of searching for a picture on which to base a character. But I did have a scene I needed, where my protagonist meets someone at a specific café in Paris. I’d never been to the café myself but – lo and behold – they have a website. With all sorts of pictures of the place!

    In another scene the clothes my heroine wears are important, and being a guy I felt really inadequate in writing it. So I looked online at a few designer dress websites and found the right one for her. Writing the scene with a picture of the dress was a lot easier!

    • #19 by rozmorris on May 7, 2011 - 8:33 am

      Jeffrey, isn’t the internet wonderful? Before those days I used to search the DVD box set of National Geographic looking for locations (although not of cafes, but you get the idea). They’re still good, actually, because the pictures are breathtaking.
      And as for looking up clothes – you have a heart for detail. I remember once reading a Modesty Blaise novel by Peter O’Donnell. He clearly adored his heroine, Modesty, but when she had to dress up he clad her in a navy blue crimplene dress with a white collar. No idea, poor man. Perhaps he just preferred her in a ragged bikini.

  10. #20 by laurastanfill on May 7, 2011 - 2:56 am

    I’ve used images in different ways–mostly for researching objects and landscapes–but I haven’t thought about crystallizing characterization by perusing (collecting!) mugshots. That’s brilliant!

    • #21 by rozmorris on May 7, 2011 - 8:34 am

      Thanks, Laura. Perhaps that’s what writers do all the time – find a use for the things other people never take notice of.

      • #22 by laurastanfill on May 7, 2011 - 4:03 pm

        Indeed! At the very least we tend to walk through the world with an eye toward noticing interesting things.

  11. #23 by Paul Dillon on May 8, 2011 - 1:09 am

    I find that describing a photo in detail is a great writing exercise. Without slavishly copying, I used photos extensively when writing my novel. Not only for characters but buildings, gardens, boats, most everything.

  1. On Collecting (for Creativity’s Sake) « Life More Lived

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