What Do You See in this Face?


When writing fiction, I find it helpful to have pictures of my characters to inspire me. match womanI used to find pictures in magazines, but in magazines, you tend to find the “pretty people”. The perfect, model-y people. My characters rarely look perfect; they look more like you and me. With the Internet, there are many ways to find pictures of Real People, and finding them can change everything.

Let me address the creepiness factor first. My picture’s on Facebook. It’s on MySpace. It used to be on Internet dating sites, which is how I met John. It’s probably on a bunch of other sites I can’t even remember uploading it to. I’ve chosen to make my picture public, and I realize that some writer somewhere might someday decide I look like his or her character and print my photo as inspiration. As long as that person doesn’t share my picture by commercial means, what do I care? I’m hoping the people I find on the Internet don’t mind being my inspiration as well.

So how do I find my characters? I search any of the many social networking sites available on the web, looking for say, my 38-year-old character Ellen who lives in Greensboro, NC. Through search filters, I’ll look for a woman Ellen’s age who lives in or near Greensboro. I’ll find one who strikes me as my Ellen and print out her image to keep near my computer as I work. Her profile or those of other women her age in Greensboro, will help me see what activities my character might enjoy in that region. 

Ironically, although I start out looking for a photo of a person who resembles my character, the photo itself often makes me change my character, sometimes dramatically. Let’s look at the picture in this blog, (I must quickly point out that this photo is not from a social networking site, but purchased through istock.com, which is where I often find my blog photos.) I see things in this woman’s face that I never imagined in Ellen’s. She’s beautiful, but she looks a little tired, don’t you think? She cares about her grooming (check out those eyebrows!) She has a little bit of modern-day hippie in her (the earrings). There’s something hard in her face–she’s tougher than I thought Ellen would be, and more determined. My character Ellen is up for a job against some much younger candidates, and the woman in this photo knows her age is showing and she’s not sure what to do about it.

See what I mean? I’m not writing about a character named Ellen right now (Ellen is a fictional fictional character. Ha!). But I am writing about a group of women in Wilmington, NC and my desk is littered with “their” pictures. I printed them all out a couple of days ago and as they came out of my printer, they became more real, with dimensions I never knew they possessed.

Next, I’ll find their homes on Realtor.com and their neighborhoods on the absolutely frighteningly invasive “street view” feature on Googlemaps.com. But their story? The only place I can find that is in my imagination, and that site is slow!


  1. WalkerGirl on January 27, 2010 at 10:48 am

    This was a wonderful article and I’m so glad you shared it. I enjoy writing as well and it was so nice and refreshingly honest to hear how someone else does this. It’s hard for me to create without visualizing, so this would be something that might inspire me as well. Great idea, and shows why you’re so creative to begin with!!! Can’t wait to read the next new novel. I got my mother hooked on your writing again too and am lending her Cee Cee Wilkes today! 🙂 Thanks for all you do!

  2. Diane Chamberlain on January 27, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    Thanks for hooking your mom, Walker Girl! And I’m glad you found the post enlightening.

  3. brenda on January 27, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    I love the way you let us read about your writing process. When I started teaching, I had the kids cut out pictures of houses to write about the people in those houses…it is such a great idea. the weather continues to plague us…we are back in school…I have ordered tons of books as getting to the library is problematic-and getting the books back in the winter…oh well-spring will come…

  4. Margo on January 28, 2010 at 9:06 am

    Diane, the way you create is so inspiring…I love reading your process…finding pics on the internet is such a good way to find faces, homes, scenery, personalities and transform those images into characters…when you lock yourself in your room and let these people ‘speak’ to you is it any wonder that an engrossing story starts to take place…you are a genius!
    Our weather is like Brendas…this a.m. -10 below…and we have ice and snow everywhere…I finally bought some
    Yak Traks to walk around outside on the ice and be safe.

  5. Lindsay on January 28, 2010 at 9:58 pm

    I did this with the one story I was able to follow through and complete. At the beginning i had my ideas of who the core characters were and I went online and searched for pictures of people that matched my characters. I found them and used them as inspiration when writing the novel.

    I wanted to say I finished sarah’s key and LOVED it. It was quite good. I also read Dear John as I want to see the movie when it comes out. It was pretty standard Nicholas Sparks and I think I might enjoy it as a movie better but we’ll see. now i’m reading Shutter Island as that’s another movie I want to see in the coming weeks.

  6. Martha on January 29, 2010 at 8:46 am

    Diane, you never cease to amaze me and I hope you are aware of the role you play as a mentor to those of us who see ourselves through your eyes. I struggle with fiction and find myself more comfortable with creative non-fiction; nevertheless, it’s as though you speak to me and me alone through your blogs. Everything that applies to fiction seems to enhance non-fiction. I’m writing about family through stories handed down from past generations with no available photos. The young lady in this blog fits one branch of my family tree perfectly. I also gained inspiration from the blog describing your writing schedule. What self-discipline! Thank you from the bottom of my heart (cliche’?). Stay warm, you may be in for some of the pending winter storm.

  7. Diane Chamberlain on January 29, 2010 at 10:53 am

    Martha, it means a lot to me to hear that my blog helps you with your writing. I’m so glad. You’re right that there is an enormous link between fiction and nonfiction. One of my favorite books for thinking about structure and other elements in fiction is Your Life as Story, by Tristine Rainer. It’s actually about memoir writing but applies to fiction equally as well.

    Lindsay, thanks for the the updates on what you’re reading. I’m now reading and loving Jenna Blum’s Those Who Saved Us.

    5-10 inches coming this weekend. How am I going to get my coffee in the morning?

  8. Martha on January 29, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    I have T. Rainer’s book. Thanks for the reinforcement. We still have some snow remaining (in shaded areas and where it was scraped and piled) from the 10″ we received in Hendersonville on Dec. 18. Forecast is for about the same with possibility of some freezing rain in the mix. There is always the chance of power outages when it’s more than just snow. Have a snug and warm weekend.

  9. brenda on January 29, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    Lindsey, I agree-standard N. Sparks…really young adult novels more than adults. I ordered ROSES, NEW YORK, some other fiction and one by Elizabeth Gilbert about marriage-I think that is her name…can’t wait to get them…snow on the way…hope the books come soon-if not…I am rereading Chamberlain, Delinsky, and Sherryl Woods–my comfort reading…

  10. brenda on January 30, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    My students told me this week that J.D. Salinger died. they were interested because one of the books I use in Junior Honors is CATCHER IN THE RYE…One of the students who came to me was one student who could not “stand” that book…most of them liked it…She asked me if he had written others, and I had a senior moment (forgot Franny and Zoey…) Catcher in the Rye is unique…such a shame that he quit writing after so few books…

  11. Steffany on January 31, 2010 at 9:11 pm

    First, I just wanted to say that you are one of three authors that I’ll purchase the book without reading the cover because I know I’m going to enjoy it. I first read The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes and I loved it! I always suggest it when friends are looking for a new book. I just finished Breaking the Silence. It was such a twisty turny read, but I enjoyed every moment of the book. 🙂

    Secondly, what an interesting post! I always figured that characters just floated around in your head with faces and characteristics. It certainly was interesting to hear how you come up with the characters and how a random photo could influence your writing. Who knows…maybe you’ll see my face one day!

    Thanks for writing…it sure makes one of my favorite past times so enjoyable!

  12. Diane Chamberlain on February 1, 2010 at 12:13 am

    Welcome to the blog, Steffany. It’s always nice to hear from a new reader, and I’m delighted you’re enjoying my books!

Leave a Comment