History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

12 September 2008

Characters: Deciding What They Look Like

As a historical author, I always keep my eye out for portraits of people who inspire my characters. I look for the right face, the hair, and if I can find it, an image that includes the clothes. I delve into magazines, old books, headshots of actors and actresses, and have been known to take photos of people at historical reenactments and medieval fairs (with permission of course).

In one of my reference books (The Reign of Chivalry, by Richard Barber), I came across the photo of the stunningly life-like 13th century sculptures of Margravine Uta and her husband, Margrave Ekkehard II. They were amongst the twelve nobles who contributed funds to build the Naumburg Cathedral in Germany, c 1250.

A "Margrave" was originally the head of an important state, is equivalent to a Marquis in the Anglo-noble pecking order.

These statues were reputedly “re-discovered” by an intrepid photographer who went exploring for interesting subject matter in an abandoned section of Naumburg Cathedral in the early twentieth century.

What strikes me about Uta and her husband is how real they look—mismatched by a romance writer’s standards (she is so much better looking than he is), but still a real husband and wife. There is so much character in their faces. I look at her image in particular and wonder was she happy? Did she love her husband?

He looks rather unforgiving and very authoritarian. As was typical of the time, he was older than his beautiful wife. The shield and sword he is holding, the belt he wears and the ornaments on his clothes are of the most detailed representations from the 13th century I have ever seen. The pin on Utah’s beautiful cloak may be a heraldic badge. I can use these details when I need to dress my next medieval heroine and hero.

I cannot find much about the real Uta’s life, except that she was a powerful woman. She is supposedly the inspiration for the evil queen in Disney's version of Snow White and during WWII, was touted to be the pinnacle of German womanhood by the Nazis.

I look at Uta’s statue and see someone more complex than that. I see sadness in her face, and intelligence. My writer’s mind gives her a story about an arranged and unwanted marriage, a lost love and shattered hopes . . .

As a reader, how do you conjure the image of a particular character in a book, and as a writer, where do you find inspiration?

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Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I'm afraid that I often imagine myself as the heroine of whatever novel I'm reading, despite the description in the book! As for my own writing, I root through books and magazines for pictures of actors or models that resemble the characters in my head, and then I make a collage with their pictures and pictures of houses, settings, clothing, which I keep by my computer while I write.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

In much of my historical fiction, many of the central and supporting characters actually existed, so I have a number of portraits to go to, in order to see what they looked like. In my contemporary writing, I tend to get an image in my head of what a certain character looks like, e.g. Diane Lane, or Julie Newmar with even redder hair, from her Catwoman days. Sometimes I pretend I'm casting the film version of my novel and I get to use whoever I want, dead or alive, and if I feel that I need to keep the image fresh in my imagination, I'll find a copy of it.

1:53 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Hi Elizabeth, me too--I've made a couple of collages, and I choose actresses and actors--even stranger, I've had two readers send me photos of actors they thought looked like the heroes in my books. Freaky how they usually got it exactly right!

One of my CPs sent me a photo of a guy who is the husband of her best friend and said "Here's Sir Robert Breton~" and it was him!

I sent the photo to my editor and she agreed. Said husband grins a big one when I tell the story.

1:57 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I do what you do Amanda E. I pretend I am casting the movie version of my book and find photos of my characters. However, I also cast the house and the countryside and sometimes even the pets! I keep it all in a notebook for each novel so I can refer back to it.

7:35 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

What fabulous sculptures.

8:11 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Kathrynn! Wonderful statues--they do look very real. Almost as though they step talk and begin talking and walking. I cast my books with actors and actresses as I'm starting to write. Like Amanda, I use actors and actresses from different eras. I don't make collages, precisely, but I do usually put pictures of at least the main characters up around my desk.

I actually blogged about the literary Casting Game on my own website this week (http://tracygrant.wordpress.com/2008/09/07/the-casting-game/#comments). I was inspired by a new site called StoryCasting which allows one to to post fantasy casts (with photos) of various books. I posted a cast for "Secrets of a Lady" (with the people I imagined when I wrote it) and now a couple of readers have posted their own casts (http://www.storycasting.com/work.aspx?id=0b71fa10-42bc-4ee5-9a6e-0f8057497faf). I love the similarities and differences in how people envision the same characters.

8:38 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Somehow I didn't get the links to work right. Here's the StoryCasting one:


And here's the one to my blog post:


8:40 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Wow, Tracy, Great blog! Thanks for the pointers to it. What fun! ;-)

8:34 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

I usually have a mental picture of what a particular character looks like; then I just keep my eyes open when I scan magazine ads and book covers and newspaper features, etc. until a face jumps out at me.

I also keep a fat file of "faces"
and when I find an intriguing one, I just slip it in for future reference.

11:01 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Wow, you guys are amazingly organized. ;-)

Lynna, I have to stop writing and scan books and magazines on the spot to find what I am looking for, the face, the place etc.

I should keep a file. That's a good idea.

Otherwise, I spend an hour reading People Magazine, or Archeology or something.....

2:35 PM  

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