Vince, John Cusack, chicken suits and me

Hi folks. I’d love some of your thoughts here. I’m interested in learning how clearly other writers see their characters when they’re writing them. Do you have strong visual pictures of them before or while writing? Some writers hang pictures of people they think their characters might look like near their writing desks, for example.

I didn’t do that for Just Desserts: Greed. Lust. Death. Tiramisu. I knew my characters pretty well when telling their stories, but I didn’t spend too much time describing them physically for readers – or for myself. I knew their general ages and the kinds of physical activity they might realistically pursue. Other than that, what the characters looked like on the outside was less important to me than what was going on inside their heads.

Shirley was an exception because much of the story depended on her, uh, physical assets. And I described Lizzie’s looks primarily to highlight how she downplayed them in contrast to Shirley (although I don’t think I developed that as well as I could have – mebbee in The Sequel).

When I was doing the final edits, I read a blog post that asked writers to name the actors they would want to play their main characters in the movie version of their latest book.

That got me thinking. I don’t watch television and I haven’t been a big movie goer lately, so my coterie of known actor candidates is fairly limited. I found out what Justin Bieber looked like just last week. (If that’s not reason enough to cancel cable, I don’t know what is.)


How could John Cusack NOT play Vince? Yes, definitely – John’s the man. The vision of a bemused John Cusack putting on the chicken suit makes me smile.

As soon as I saw John Cusack as Vince, though, my thinking shifted. Not in Just Desserts itself, but in the sequel-in-progress. Seeing Vince as John, John as Vince, opened up different, possibly conflicting, directions for the story and for Vince as an authentic character. What Would John Do? versus What Would Vince Do?

I’m not sure that’s a good thing, at least for me. I think I want Vince to be good ole’ Vince, not Vince wearing a John Cusack mask. So, difficult as it may be, I’m sending John back to Hollywood and recreating my old, fuzzy image of Vince.

How about you?

As a writer, do you have a clear-cut visual image of your characters as you’re writing? If you have a visual image, is it a real person or someone you see only in your mind’s eye? Do you know what your characters are wearing, how long their hair is, their BMI? If so, do you describe these features for your readers? How? Why? Does genre or time frame of the story influence you on this?

As a reader, do you enjoy reading detailed descriptions of what characters look like, how they’re dressed? Do you set up your own visual images of characters when the author doesn’t provide them? Do you get annoyed when an author doesn’t describe what his or her main characters look like?

I’d love to know what you think. Enquiring minds [still] want to know…
Photo Credit: Free images from

18 comments to Vince, John Cusack, chicken suits and me

  • Oh, I love discussing this. I do usually have a very clear picture of not only my characters, but their homes, cars, businesses, etc. As I said once, I could describe what they have in their refrigerators.

    However, I don’t put much of that into my writing unless there’s good reason — like you said with your character Shirley. If you recall, I gave a pretty detailed description of Jalal because Meredith was daydreaming about him like a smitten schoolgirl. But I didn’t describe Meredith, or Renee, much at all because I wanted the reader to mentally draw their portraits.

    And I did that with your characters, so clearly that I never noticed you didn’t! 🙂

    I don’t particularly like an author telling me ALL the details of a character’s appearance. (That’s one reason why I’m not crazy about chick lit, I don’t want to know every outfit they wear and all that.) Of course, if it’s some fantastical world, I appreciate more detail. The drawback is that when they make a movie of a book, I’m always thrown because the actors don’t look like I pictured them.

    • Funny that you know what’s in your characters’ refrigerators! Vince’s refrigerator – yes, I could describe what’s in it, but that’s because it’s so specific to the story.

      I like to draw my own mental portraits of characters I read about and my images of Meredith and Renee might be different than yours, but they fit for me.

  • Is it all right to Twitter links to your posts?

    • Yes, that would be great! Thanks! I may actually take the Twitter plunge at some point but I want to finish summer and learn how to use my new computer (MacBook Air) before taking up Twitter.

  • I would have never put John Cusack is Vince’s shoes. I think because he’s older, I pictured Vince as a younger guy. Maybe a younger John Cusack?? Now his father I pictured as a taller Danny DeVito for some reason. 🙂 Don’t know why…
    I also don’t like long detailed descriptions of what each character is wearing every time they change their clothes. If it’s part of the story, a special party or something like that, i don’t mind. But sometimes authors can really go overboard.
    For physical descriptions, I like it have something, but I don’t need great detail.

    For my own characters, I have pictures of people that I believe most resemble them. Some characters have two photos and my character will fall somewhere in between. I don’t think I’ve followed a set rule on descriptions, some I’ve described fairly detail but tried to slip it in discreetly without the laundry list, others I’ve only hinted at what they look like. Sometimes I’ll pick a name for a character then Google the name and explore the images to decide what the character could look like.

    For example: Google Natasha and you’ll get an assortment of women to choose from. Although with this method you need to steer clear of really famous names or you’ll only get pictures of the stars. Like Jennifer will get you 800 photos of Jennifer Aniston and Jennifer Lopez.

    • Since I’m so out of it, my image of John Cusack is probably dated. I’m probably stuck on him in High Fidelity, so that makes him a ‘younger guy.’

      A taller Danny DeVito (could there be a shorter Danny DeVito?) isn’t bad… A couple of weeks ago at an outdoor concert I saw a guy who was a dead ringer for my image of Tony. Andre’ had the camera and I said, ‘Quick, take a picture – there’s Tony!’ There were dozens of people where I was pointing but he had no trouble knowing exactly who I meant.

      So when do we see some more of your characters?

      • I have no idea… 🙂 I did a rewrite on my first manuscript and I’m editing the second while the first rests. I expect to get back to it soon for what hope will be a final edit, then I’ll need beta readers. I thought I would have more time on my hands to write while being unemployed but the kids are keeping me busy. Thankfully they go back to school on Monday. It’s been a nice summer off with the kids though. We’ve had a good time. And, as if there’s a higher power out there making sure I don’t get bored, now I’m getting calls for interviews and maybe even a recall back to my old job.
        Like In said, when it rains, it pours. Who knows where I’ll be in a month.

  • I don’t mind either way as long as the descriptions either fit into the story well, or are needed as you point out. The one thing that does rub me wrong is when the author describes a character’s appearance long after they’ve been introduced in the story. By then, I’ve developed my own mental picture and receiving a second look from the author pulls me away from any attachment to that character.

    POV is also important in deciding which characters to describe. In one of my stories told in first POV, I never describe what the MC looks like so the reader will have to develop their own vision, but I do allow the MC to speak of his impression of others.

    • I kinda like it when an author throws in some new aspects of a character somewhere down the line rather than at the beginning of the story or when you first meet the character. I’m probably thinking more of personality traits or back-story than physical description though.

  • I used to think physical description important then I read Stephen Kimg who said he purposefully does not give too much as the readers fill in for themselves what the character looks like..interesting point

  • I read your book–Just Desserts–and have come here to congratulate you. I can’t wait for more!

  • Hi Natasha, Thanks for stopping by my blog. I’m so glad you did, because it gave me a good reason to come over and read this post. I’ve been thinking a lot about this character I’m struggling to write a story with. I know a lot about her already, and physically she’s borrowed from a woman I took a class with several years ago. I don’t go into a lot of descriptions in my stories, but if there is anything particularly unique it will probably come out. Mainly, I need a visual in my head and it can’t be John Cusackesque for exactly the reasons you stated. Often, characters are borrowed lightly from people I’ve met in real life, then they go in their own directions.

    Thanks for the great post!

    • You’re welcome, Victoria. I like the way you borrow characters ‘lightly’ from real people before they go in their own directions.

      I’m a big people watcher and this summer I’ve been looking at everyone I see to see if any of my characters are lurking on the beach or in line behind me at the grocery store or someplace.

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