We’re talking about collage this week in the McD class, and one of the hardest things to get across is that collage is not illustration. While it’s perfectly fine to google for specific things in your story, what you’re really looking for is the look and feel of the narrative, and nowhere is that more important than in the characters.
It’s tempting to just pick one face to represent your character and leave it at that, but I’ve found that it’s too limiting, especially if you’re using an actor in a particular role. At that point, you’re really just using somebody else’s character, so I’ve found it’s easier to visualize my people if I choose multiple faces to represent them. For example, here’s Tennyson from “Cold Hearts:”
Tenn is that color-outside-the-lines guy who spins you a con but who can be deadly serious when necessary. He doesn’t look like any of these guys, he looks like all of them because Tenn is a character, not a face.
Courtney was harder because she’d already been in a story, so I’d already slotted in a picture of her as a supporting character (I’d only used one because she was mostly a voice on the phone). The picture below is from the making of the “Hot Toy” collage showing the original pictures of Courtney and Trudy (angry-looking models from the Anthropologie catalog) along with the altered image that I used for the final Trudy:
So based on what I’d written in the story, Courtney had to have curly red hair and a lot of hostility. Here’s Courtney two years after “Hot Toy”:
There’s probably a twenty-year age span in those three actresses, but it doesn’t matter, none of those pictures is a portrait of Courtney. But taken together they’re an emotional portrait of her; this is who she is on the page (I hope).
This all goes along with the idea that it doesn’t matter what your character looks like as long as you get the character of the character on the page. Readers like to see the story through their own eyes, imagine the characters looking the way they want them to look. Unless a character detail is really important to the plot–something specific about the description has an impact on how the narrative unfolds–what people look like in detail is irrelevant to your story.
Which means it’s irrelevant to your collage, too.