This flash turned out to be absolutely accurate. In fact, it turned out the cartoonist had drawn the character's face based only on the voice. My dinner companion looked like he sounded.
Much of my introduction to characters as I write comes through an experience of what they sound like. Long before I know who they are and what they look like, I have their voices in my head. But at some point, I need to be able to see them, too. This helps me both to visualize scenes and to provide apt descriptions for readers.
Many of my writer friends begin with pictures. I know some who have folders full of magazine clippings that represent their characters. I've also found online that people search actors directories and use gaming software to make it easier to see their characters. Some writers actually sketch out entire casts and even specific scenes.
The best hint I ever had on how to visualize a character comes from a friend who said if you want to remember what someone you love looks/looked like, think of them in motion. I found that to be excellent advice for recalling memories, but it easily extends to seeing characters I know only by voice.
The first thing I try to imagine is a scene that has both motion and emotion. I want the character to be feeling something — joy, rage, terror, love. Ideally, I place the action in an environment that allows me to see it, without forcing things, from afar. Then I work in cinematic terms by viewing the action as a long shot, a medium shot, a close-up, and in extreme close-up. The particulars are likely to change, but, almost always, I end up seeing the person's full body, hands, face, and eyes.
Now, I may not know enough about the story to create a scene that is relevant. Because of this, I have three "go to" activities to explore with my characters:
- Flying a kite.
- Loading a gun.
- Lighting a candle.
So try this at home:
- Choose a character you want to visualize clearly.
- Select an activity that includes both motion and emotion. (Feel free to use one of mine.)
- View the scene in your imagination from different distances. You can go from distant to close (as I usually do), close to distant, or at random distances that suit your mood.
One more thing. I poked around and found a few references if you want to dig more deeply into character visualization.