Character Creation: Face Blindness

Since I started doing author panels at conventions, I’ve gotten one question thrown at me a few times: “How do you come up with characters?”

And inevitably, my process is just a little bit different from the other authors at those panels, because mine plays a lot into my face blindness.

For those unaware, face blindness (or prosopagnosia) is a neurological disorder characterized by the inability to recognize faces. If I see you at a convention and I introduce myself to you twice, that’s why: I remember having talked to you, but I can’t keep in my mind what you actually look like. Like a lot of people with the disorder, I tend to compensate with other details– if you’re wearing a particular costume, for example, or if you’ve got a visible tattoo.

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Photo by Stokpic on

I once had a pair of coworkers who would often be on shifts with me together. They were both blonde, both in their early twenties, and both fairly petite and thin. In my first few weeks on the job, I could be looking at one and standing next to the other, and I would have absolutely no idea which one I was talking to unless I looked at the nametag; sometimes I would continue a conversation I’d started with one coworker but speak to the other one, not realizing that these were two different people. After several weeks of working there, I got to know them well enough that I learned to recognize them– and at that point, I realized that aside from their hair and body type, they really looked nothing alike. In the first few weeks, I also had a bad habit of giving sales pitches to my coworkers as they were walking back from the bathroom, because I couldn’t recognize that they were the same people that had been hanging out with me a few minutes before. It was only when they visibly recognized me that I was able to say “wait, they know me? Oh, that’s actually my manager”.

That tends to come across in my writing.

“Believe it or not, age/race/hair/eyes really didn’t make a person much easier to identify. I was more interested in details that made him stand out: a hyena-like walk that was somehow both a sulk and a swagger; a penchant for bad spray tans and expensive hair gel; a tendency to wear designer clothes and colognes, usually with no regard to whether they actually suited him.” — Urban Dragon Book 3: Dance with the Devil

When I create a character, I tend to start with the role they have in the story, and from there I default to the way I would remember them if I were to meet them: what impression would they leave behind?

With Arkay, even before she was a dragon I knew she was overly energetic, mischievous, and overprotective, that she liked to pick fights, and that she was physically so small that people always underestimated her (which she found hilarious). The over-protectiveness developed into a dragon’s territorial nature; the fact that she was an Asiatic dragon informed her ethnicity, etc.

With Rosario, the first things I knew were that she was homeless because she found Arkay under a bridge, and that she was incredibly brave and kind– because you kind of have to be, to nurse a forty-foot dragon back to health. Details like her sexuality, her body type, and her ethnicity are all informed by the research I did based around those two details. Her gender was actually the last thing I chose for her.

Raimo was meant to be an overly friendly viking; the Contessa is an anachronistic embodiment of Medici wealth, power, and style, where stilettos are both the shoes she wears and the weapon she prefers.

Details like race and gender are often among the last details I choose for my characters, unless they’re intrinsically tied to some detail in that character. With both Arkay and Raimo, I couldn’t picture either of them as anything but Japanese and Scandanavian, respectively, because that was already built into those foundational details of the character.

That’s not to say they’re not incredibly important– the race and gender do so very much to inform a person’s experiences as they move through life and is a defining part of who they are, and they can radically alter the kind of tropes that play out with those characters– but they’re not the first places my mind goes when I’m creating those characters.

But if you’re ever wondering why I describe my characters the way I do– or, rather, why I don’t describe my characters with the kind of details other authors might– that’s why.


Voicing Opinions

There are more subtle ways of sharing your characters’ opinions. (Photo credit: iceman9294)

Whenever I meet a new volunteer at the bookstore, I introduce myself as Loudmouthed and Opinionated (seriously, my rants are pretty much legendary). But you don’t need to be able to go on hour-long rants to have an opinion. In fact, most opinions don’t need to be stated outright, because often they’re so ingrained in your worldview and belief system that it bleeds through into your everyday language.

This is also true about characters. And hopefully, those characters don’t spend nearly as much time as I do ranting their opinions to anybody who wants to avoid doing work for the day.

An important part of narration (especially first person narration) is finding the character’s voice. A lot of people accomplish this by making the character off-beat, sarcastic, funny, or just plain weird– but that doesn’t always mesh with the personality of your chosen narrator. A great way of bringing out that personality and adding color to that voice is to let the narrator’s opinions take forefront. The way they see the world will inform huge swaths of their perceptions of the world around them.

Consider the following sentence:

I walked into a large building that stood on a wide lawn.

That’s bland. It’s unimaginative. It’s boring. Now let’s add in some personality. A few made-up-on-the-spot characters and their opinion of the same building:

  • The longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in E...
    The longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in England (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    Architect: I hurried between an arrangement of Roman columns, glancing up at a vaulted ceiling so high I had to crane my neck to take in its full scope.

  • Agoraphobe: The building was a lousy shelter from the overwhelming expanse of the lawn; the pillars felt like some giant monster’s fangs, open wide to swallow me whole. 
  • Guerrilla: The openness of the green space was unnerving. The inside of the building wasn’t much better, but at least I could take some cover behind the columns.
  • Gorilla: Finally I find some trees– but there’s something wrong with these. They’re cold and hard and have no branches. This place smells wrong, like lemon and leopard piss.

For each of these, that one sentence (or couple of sentences) might very well be the only time the building is ever described, and none of these are particularly time-consuming descriptions. But each of these sets the stage with a setting, a mood, and an insight into the mind of the narrator.  The end result is often prose that is dynamic, compact and (hopefully!) just plain interesting.