Two Sides of the Same Face

How to create a complex character from a single photograph

Beth van der Pol
Sep 14 · 3 min read

There are so many ways to create a character, and most of them work really well. A writer will generally have a preferred method, and this is a fun one for me. I enjoy building characters from scratch. I almost always start with a photo.

I explained this concept to one of my writer friends, and I thought since they hadn’t heard of this glorious method that perhaps I should share it with my fellow creators. First, I pick a reference photo for my character. I generally have a good idea of who would fit in my plot and what they should look like, but making her complex with habits and desires is tricky sometimes. You can use this method by choosing a photo similar to what you want to build or pick someone with an interesting face. I chose this girl.

Photo by Harishan Kobalasingam on Unsplash

The first thing that you want to do is a pick a striking face. I chose this one after typing face into Unsplash. Easy peasy.

I like her natural face, her slightly frizzy hair. I like her smirk. It feels like she knows something I don’t. I already have some idea of what kind of character she is just by looking at her features.

So how do we turn this photo reference into a three-dimensional character?

We split her face in half.

I would encourage you to try this exercise with me. Otherwise, it might be hard to understand the concept.

Look at the left side of her face, cover up the screen with a bit of paper or if you’re editing software savvy, crop her face. Once we have a side of the face isolated, we examine what kind of person could have this type of face. What is her occupation, her hobby, what is her nature like? For me, I would say she is this:

  • Gentle
  • Caring
  • In pain
  • On the swimming team
  • Dog walker

That’s enough to start with…. What about the right side?

  • Confident
  • Smart
  • Witty
  • Cheerleader
  • Waitress

Now you see two halves of a person. You’ll find that some overlap. I thought she looked very sporty on both sides, so I chose two hobbies that involved sports. I did, however, give her two different occupations. Waitress and dog walker, these two jobs could go hand in hand; she might be working both of them or be a cheerleader who enjoys long walks with her dog.

The fun part about this method is you get to squash two different people into one complex character. Either side of the face makes for a typical character, but if you have a cheerleader who is both smart and gentle, it makes for a more interesting person than a typical cheerleader that you would find in an average story.

You can, of course, make as many observations as you like, I wouldn’t stick with just five if I were planning on developing her further. Don’t be afraid to discard any of the traits that don’t fit well together. Sometimes a character can be too diverse to be believable, but this will give you an excellent base to build off of.

I hope this method is as useful for you as it is for me! I genuinely love building characters this way, and I hope you get some enjoyment out of this character-building process. As always, I cannot wait to see you on the bookshelf!

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Writer’s Blog

A publication dedicated to fighting writer’s block and enabling writers.

Beth van der Pol

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Author, writer and general young unprofessional!

Writer’s Blog

A publication dedicated to fighting writer’s block and enabling writers.

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