Using Setting to Determine Character Appearance


Leading on from the post two weeks ago about the importance of describing your characters, I wanted to take a quick amble around the question of how you decide what someone should look like. A lot of times I start off with a hazy idea in my head and then start considering specifics, and that hazy idea changes pretty dramatically. Your character needs to fit their surroundings (unless, of course, you’re writing something which transplants the protagonist into a wholly alien environment, in which case they need to reflect where they came from), otherwise you risk jarring your readers’ suspension of disbelief. So here’s a quick checklist of things to think about when designing the look:


What type of culture does the character live in? Desert, jungle, sea; European, Asian, Native American? Post-apocalyptic? All of this will dictate, to some extent, what the character wears, how they style their hair, make-up/tattoos, etc. Fashion is also an excellent indicator of class/caste distinction – something Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games demonstrates extremely well. What symbols are important or taboo? How might the character incorporate these into their appearance, and what does that tell the reader/other characters about them?


Is your character rich or poor? Is their family / community rich or poor? Could they afford good food or not? A poor diet would potentially affect their health, their skin, how tall they grow, how good their teeth are, etc. It’s not just about wealth, though. What other resources does the community have access to? Does your character wear silk or cotton? Do they use soap every day or only on special occasions? Are there certain colours of dye that are very rare, or reserved for a particular caste? Purple, for example, used to be incredibly rare as it only occurs naturally in a small mollusc in the Mediterranean. As a result it was horrifically expensive and reserved for royalty.


What does your character do, and what kind of environment do they do it in? This will impact a number of things, including the clothes they wear, their fitness level, and the level of attention they pay to their own appearance. A royal courtesan, because of her lifestyle, will have a very different appearance to that of a plumber. What do they need to consider consciously and what is automatically affected?


This is SF&F, so what racial specifics does your character have and why? How does this affect their appearance, not just physically but in how they dress, move, talk, and are reacted to by others. This can also link back to culture. As an example, in my world setting goblins evolved from snakes, just as humans evolved from apes. That means goblins have poisonous fangs, which leads to a racial habit of not smiling unless they’re about to attack because revealing deadly fangs in social situations makes other people nervous.


Are there any personality traits that you can demonstrate through appearance? How would you show the following purely through physical description: OCD, laziness, pride, clumsiness, colour-blindness, impatience, vanity, practicality, lack of self-esteem, grief.


What do you have planned? What changes will this character undergo, and how will they be reflected in the character’s appearance (if at all)? Is it worth highlighting the ‘factory settings’ at the beginning, so the change is emphasised at the end?

Plus the 'that's just cool' factor

Plus the ‘that’s just cool’ factor

The advantage of going through this, apart from helping formulate the character, is that it also makes you think about the setting a bit more. Who knows, maybe even plot ideas will spawn out of it.

This is a fairly basic list, though – what factors have I missed? What do you use to design your characters?


One response »

  1. Way back in the day, when I was first developing my setting, I created characters from whole cloth and tailored their places of origin to fit them. Now, almost twenty years later, the setting has become a lot more real, with history and warfare and periods of cultural exchange or isolation, to the point that even the oldest of my characters has been adapted to suit the newer, more fleshed-out version of his homeland. It’s always a back-and-forth process, especially if you’re building a large world — you come up with a trait you’d like in the character, then have to decide how it fits into their society, or see something neat you want one culture to wear and then must consider what your characters do with it…and why. My favorite part of writing, really.

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