Collaging Character

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:

Original Courtney & 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.

19 thoughts on “Collaging Character

  1. NOW I get it. Thank you. Appreciate how you’re nailing details in this current series on writing.

  2. It also occurs to me that if I use multiple actors to represent a character I’m so much less likely to look at someone else’s collage and say, “That’s my character! She’s using my character! She can’t use my character!” and then have to breathe into a paper bag for a while.

    Multiple actors. Excellent idea. 😉

  3. I have a character who has shown up in three books and two short stories and whenever I ask readers to describe her, they do. But she has never actually been on stage in most of those narratives and I’ve never written a single word of description for her. I have no idea what she looks like. But I’m never going to write that description, because every person I have asked goes ahead and tells me what they think and I don’t want to disturb their images of her. She looks like whatever you think she looks like. But she is obstinate and opionated and sarcastic and vulnerable and everyone recognizes that. And none of that has anything to do with her hair color. (Probably variable if you ask me.)

    1. Early in my career, people used to come to my book signings and tell me they expected me to be a short, thin woman with dark hair. I thought about sending my friend, Val Taylor, out in my place, just to keep that illusion for them.

      1. I was once told, based on my writing (non romance at the time) they thought I was a man in my 50s instead of (at the time) a woman in my 20s.

          1. That’s too funny. People probably read mine and say, “She’s old.” At least they don’t get a surprise when they meet me. *grin*

            You know, it took me years of listening to you talk about collage and looking at your collages, (I know, I know, I’m a slow learner) before I understood that its more about capturing the emotion/energy of the story. It finally hit me last year when I got stuck on a story. I’d collaged it and then when I was in revisions I discovered my heroine had a short blond bob in the story, (mentioned once by the antagonist) and long reddish brown hair in the multiple pictures in the collage. However, the collage people were all very active and they truly represented the feel of the story, and I wanted that action so I left it as it was.

      2. I couldn’t tell you why, but if I’d thought about it, I would have pictured you that way. Maybe because I always see your protagonists as not so tall. Except Min.

        1. I think I saw them all as around 5’8″ or 5’9″, but their height doesn’t have an impact on the story so I never wrote it in. The less description, the better; leaves more white space for readers to make a story their own.

          1. One of my favourite examples of that white space is Pride and Prejudice. The only physical description of Elizabeth is when Darcy says she has “fine eyes.” In fact, I don’t think there is any detailed physical description of any character in that book.

  4. I can never see models as people, so they don’t work for my characters. I tend to grab people off the internet any time a picture pops up and says “Use me,” and I save them in a file for future use. They’re always real people, but rarely someone I know anything about.

    If I go looking for someone specific, I’m not usually successful. What works best, though, is to Google something like math professor or paediatrician and see who pops up.

  5. Very cool! I wondered why sometimes I was seeing different people in the collages.

    But…Courtney has her own story??

  6. Thank you for this! I have a supporting character in two different novellas, and I found that viewed through a different hero’s eyes he seems like a different guy. He was a ‘dude’ kind of a guy to both heroes, but a different ‘dude’ kind of a guy to each of them. Kind of like the difference between an ex frat boy ‘dude’ and might be a stoner ‘dude’. I was worried that the character had drifted between the two projects, and maybe he did. Or maybe it’s that the heroes are different in perspective and therefore view this dude in different ways.

    1. It could very well be due to the hero’s way of processing character. We all see the world through different eyes.

  7. I’m glad you’d mentioned using multiple people for one character. Several images came up for one of my characters and they all seemed to fit. One was more who she was in the beginning, one was at the end. There was one where I didn’t like what she was wearing, but her expression and the task she was doing was perfect for the story. That’s when it made sense for me.

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