The sketch artist

[March 2008] I’m a big fan of crime novels and TV shows. I like the procedural details and the forensics, the minutiae of the day-to-day workings of the average detective who plods along, chasing down leads and stumbling upon the big breaks that solve crimes.

One aspect of criminal investigations that completely befuddles me, though, is the work done by police sketch artists. These are the people who sit with witnesses and come up with a drawing of a suspect that is then handed out to police officers or sent to the media. These sketches stand in for photographs or frames from surveillance video when these are not available.

Originally, sketch artists worked like park caricaturists, using pencil, paper and eraser, adding details and changing features based on feedback from the witness. Nowadays, the work is done primarily on computers with programs that have palettes of hair, eyes, noses, chins and ears, in much the same way that traditional graphics programs have palettes of colors and textures.

A sketch artist would grow frustrated with me pretty quickly. I have a poor grasp of the types of information he needs to do his job. I would be hard pressed to describe me accurately enough for an artist to produce a passing likeness, let alone a stranger who I saw for only a fleeting moment. I might be able to close my eyes and imagine what someone looks like, but I’m not sure I could explain what I see well enough to be of any use.

If you stood me in front of a house or an office building, I would have no difficulty describing it. I might even do a passable job of drawing a passable imitation on a sheet of paper. It might look like it came from the hand of a six year old, but it would be recognizable. I couldn’t draw a human being that resembled a specific person to save my life.

What does all this have to do with writing? Only everything. Our books and stories are populated with people we see in our mind’s eye.

My natural tendency is to be a minimalist when it comes to describing characters. I often don’t have a clear vision of what they look like. I’ve tended to follow Elmore Leonard’s advice about leaving the character description up to the reader. “You can essentially stop the action if you describe too much about a character. You might be messing with the reader’s idea of the character, and that’s not a good idea,” he told Rick Newman in a Q&A for US News and World Report. Another writer said he didn’t describe his protagonist because he was constantly looking at his fictional world through that character’s eyes and not at the character himself.

My lack of character description was one of my agent’s biggest complaints about the first novel I showed him. At first, I resisted his requests for more. I could quote Leonard until I was blue in the face, but that didn’t get around the fact that a lot of readers want writers to at least sketch out what a character looks like. Tall or short. Fair or dark. Long hair or buzz cut. We don’t have to outline every scar and blemish, or report the number of hairs on their heads, but we are world builders. We describe scenes so readers can imagine them—and people are very much part of the scene.

For another book I wrote a few years ago, I introduced a character who caught the protagonist’s eye. Because she was going to be important to the story, and given my agent’s advice, I decided to envision what she looked like and how she dressed in detail. She was a Hispanic American, pretty but not glamorous. A girl-next-door type. Problem was, I couldn’t conjure up a consistent vision of this woman.

Google is my friend. In this case, the “image search” feature. I can’t recall the exact combinations of search terms I used, but I went on a quest to find my female character. Though I had only a general idea of what she should look like, I certainly knew when I hadn’t found her. I must have poured over five dozen possible candidates. The moment I saw her, it was like I had been shown a police sketch and then a photograph of the person it was supposed to represent.

Though she is a famous television presenter in Spain, the model for my character is essentially unknown to most of the world. Given her regional fame, I was able to find photographs of her in many different poses and wearing different outfits. Since my protagonist encounters her many times over the course of the novel, I needed to describe her in apparel appropriate to the various scenes.

Was I cheating? Perhaps. At least I wasn’t taking one of the common shortcuts sometimes found in amateur fiction—comparing a character to somebody famous. “She looked just like Lindsey Lohan.” Not only is that lazy writing, it also dates your material. Readers ten years from now may have no clue who that is, and even if they do the visual is attached to a 2008 version of the person and not to the 2018 version.

I haven’t repeated the Google Images experiment, but I found it useful at the time. It allowed me to consider character attributes I might not have come up with otherwise. The aquiline nose with a gentle bump on the bridge. Eyebrows plucked to an intriguing shape nature never intended. The crooked smile, or the way she looks when taken off guard as compared to when she knows she’s being observed. How her various hairstyles make her almost look like a different person to someone who doesn’t know her well. The outfits and combinations she chooses to wear that would defy this colorblind and fashion-impaired writer’s imagination.

The net result of my experiment, though, is that I’m more aware of what my characters look like, and of a reader’s interest in knowing what they look like. Not all of us come to the page with the same imagination, and the more completely we can paint the scene, the more accessible our work becomes—or so I have come to believe.

I still couldn’t describe a living human being to a sketch artist and have him come up with a representation of that person that would be recognizable to anyone else. However, I am now more likely to make up descriptions of people I see in my head. Whether a reader sees the person the same way I do isn’t important. By providing some specific details, I am helping them envision the action that is playing out on the page in front of them a little better.

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