Writing while faceblind

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ChaseJxyz

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For those unfamiliar with the condition, it's when your brain can't differentiate between faces. I can see faces in front of me and could describe basic elements if I had to, but none of that is "stored" in my memory. Something like this is really difficult for me to make out who's who, only the facial hair is something I can use as a clue. If someone asked you to look at a bunch of zebras or penguins and pick out a specific individual, you can tell they're different but none of those patterns mean anything to you and you cannot describe them.

So, writing! I just...cannot describe faces at all. I could throw in things that I've read other people use about cheekbones or eye shapes or whatever, but I have no idea what any of that would actually look like, if it would make a face that looks decent or weird, if it would imply that a character was a certain race or ethnicity. I don't like using words/phrases that I don't know what they mean, so it doesn't feel write to just go off what I've read in other people's books. I always describe things like hair, eye color, skin tone, the sort of things that I can (usually) see/picture, and having lots of non-human characters helps a lot.

But I'm worried that some editor or agent will say "why is he not describing what his characters look like at all?" I can describe what things would look like if you could see ultraviolet light through research and imagination, but I am just not able to imagine or picture faces. I can't make every character/narrator faceblind or of a species that doesn't notice the differences in human faces (like we can't with animal faces). I'm just running off "I hope no one notices or asks me about this, ever," but that's not really a longterm plan. I can't come up with a solution to this other than "make someone else come up with it and write it for me," and it feels really bad that I am incapable of doing something that feels so basic.

Is this a thing that (publishing) gatekeepers are going to notice and will it work against me? Is there some solution I'm just not thinking about? Is anyone else faceblind and have experience in this? The only other person I know who has this is my sister and she doesn't have any solutions.
 
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Silenia

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I'm sort-of-but-not-wholly faceblind myself (not helped by generally wonky visualisation skills--I can't remember or imagine in sight only language/sound/taste with very few exceptions, but I can recognize most visuals anyway so I suppose I do store them in more than language somewhere).

I *can* differentiate between faces, but I also don't store them as a "whole picture", I just memorize separate traits (which I can only really access in language not sight unless said face, or a picture thereof, is actually in front of me). Because I memorize those separate traits--kind of like puzzle pieces--I can recognize and describe those "patterns" you mentioned when I actually have the face in question--or a picture thereof--in front of me, but not from memory or imagination alone, and I won't ever really see a face as one whole.

If I see a picture and I know a specific person is in there, I can usually find them with some effort (though it helps if the person has some noticeable, "memorize-worthy" traits). If trying to identify someone from picture, though, I end up stuck at "yeah, that face looks sort of familiar (but who it is? no clue)" a lot except for faces that have *really* striking traits that stand out a lot & faces of people I am very familiar with--parents, sibling, partner. In those cases, I can usually identify "hey this picture is of [person]!" without being told that person is in the picture.

However, from what I can tell, for many folks with more typical visualization & face recognition skills, basic traits like hair/skin/eye color, facial hair, and the likes appears to be enough to build at least a general idea what someone looks like where they'll fill in the blanks themselves (and quite possibly never really notice they did so), though it may not be enough for some of them or at least seem a bit bare.

What helped me flesh out my face descriptions is to take a good look at what traits I could recognize and understand from pictures even if they don't necessarily naturally stand out to me, rather than trying to see the "whole" that I'm plain not capable of. Basically I plucked a bunch of random pictures of people off the 'net, then sat down and analysed each of them in-depth for separate noticeable traits rather than the face as a whole, and noted those down. Eventually trained myself into at least noticing more separate traits that way, even if they still remain separate puzzle pieces instead of a whole picture, and even though they often still don't stand out to me without active effort.

Then after that, I took my time to consider which of traits can be reasonably predicted from character behaviour or circumstances (and which you can thus understand the implications of better than "random" traits you've got to train yourself to even see):

* What effects are your character's lifestyle and circumstances likely to have on their skin texture? (E.g. smoking, drinking, age, spending a lot of time outdoors with little to no protection, spending a lot of time indoors and seeing little to no sunlight, but also things like whether their skincare routine consists of *quick wipe of their face with a wet cloth* or *careful, hour-long cleansing, oiling, etc*) Rough and weathered? Baby-face smooth? Glossy and well-oiled?

* How about on their teeth? Do they have easy access to dentistry? Are they wearing braces, are their teeth crooked, broken or stained, did they get a tooth replaced by one that doesn't quite match their natural teeth? Do they have an over- or underbite that was never quite corrected?

* Are they the type to get into a fist-fight they might come out of with a broken nose that healed crooked? Lots of tiny scars from hurried shavings or scratching the welts from that time they fell into a bunch of nettles? A big scar from a workplace or childhood accident?

* How do they present themselves? Are they likely to wear any cosmetics? Pluck and shape their eyebrows? Get their lips plumped or their eyes lifted? Any other permanent/long-term modifications like tattoos or piercings?

Incorporating that stuff into my descriptions made the characters feel more real and less checklist-y, even though I still can't actually see their faces myself.
 

owlion

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I actually have the same issue, where faces are a sort of blank in my mind. I can picture hair well enough, so that usually goes in the description (though it doesn't really matter much to me, so I sort of go through 'Is it dark, medium or light? Is it short, medium or long? Is it straight, wavy or curly?' and tick random boxes to make sure the characters are different), and eye colour is a similar thing, as well as the face being narrow, broad, having a strong jaw etc. So far, no agents have ever commented on it being an issue, so I assume it's fine, but Silenia's tips are really good, so trying those will probably make things easier.
 

Lakey

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This may be genre dependent, but there are plenty of books in which character faces aren’t described at all. But even when there are descriptions, a good description does not need to be sufficient for a police sketch artist to produce a rendering. Rather, good description highlights one or two details that are salient to the character being described, or the POV character, or both. Things like, “Her hair was trimmed in a schoolgirlish bob, though she was well into her thirties.” Or, “His thick glasses magnified his eyes and gave him an owlish look.” Or, “Olivia’s perfectly penciled eyebrows made Jane feel self-conscious that she hadn’t even bothered to pluck her own.” You certainly don’t need to describe cheekbones or nose-thicknesses or make sure the hair color of each character is precisely specified. I think if you focus down on a detail or two and construct descriptions that are lively and in-POV, they will be more than adequate.

:e2coffee:
 

TulipMama

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I do not have this issue. I am not face-blind in any regard, so I don't know if what I have to say is useful. My advice in this regard is:

Don't sweat it.

I'm a very visual person. When I read a book, the world around me goes away and I'm watching a movie play in my head. I straight up forgot I was giving blood the other day because I was reading in the chair while they drained me. When I read, one of the things I look for right away is a description, but if it's not there, or not there fast enough, my brain fills it in, says THIS IS WHAT THE MC LOOKS LIKE and I can't shake that mental image for love or money.

I'm also not alone in this, from what I've been able to find in talking to friends and family. What cements a character's visuals will, for me, often be more context, or emotion based, than actual words on the page saying they've got blue eyes and black hair.

A Youtuber I watch really summed it up nicely in a video. I'm not here to plug them, and I'm always hesitant to post links, but if you're interested, look up 'Hellofutureme' on Youtube, he's got a lot of very interesting writing videos, including one on character description. I HIGHLY suggest taking a look.
 
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Tazlima

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I'm also faceblind and had similar concerns. The more I write, the more I've come to realize it truly is a non-issue. The level of description needed for a story is generally what I would actually notice anyway. (E.g. Blond guy with buck teeth). You really only need one or two distinguishing characteristics and you're set.

Now, FOR MY OWN USE... because I can't hold a mental image of a character as a reference, if I have a work with a large cast, I sometimes browse the internet and find pictures of "my characters". I compile these into character sheets, complete with names, personalities, ages etc. That way, when I need to describe a character, I can double-check my reference to make sure the descriptions are internally consistent. Knowing I can always refer back to the photos gives me peace of mind about the issue.
 
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Introversion

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I'm not faceblind, but I must be an odd reader because I don't usually hold a vivid picture of characters in my head, even if they've been exactingly described. I just sort of gloss over those descriptions.

So I'm with Tazlima; I don't really think it's a big deal to not be able to describe your characters as if you weren't faceblind. What matters more, to me at least, is that characters each have an individual "voice". Jenny is blonde-haired, blue-eyed, buxom, wearing black leather, etc? Eh, I've just skipped past all that. I pay more attention to whether she acts like a unique person, with her own personality quirks, way of speaking, etc.
 

NickyRainbow

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I struggle with this too, and I appreciate you bringing it up because there are some brilliant tips in this thread! It's frustrating to feel as though I'm just running down a checklist of learned ideas whenever I try to describe faces, because I can't actually picture them myself in any meaningful, unique way. It's bad enough that my partner often has to coach me through films and tv shows (half the time I have no idea whether I've seen a character before or not, and if two characters have the same hairstyle, I'm lost!) but it's especially discouraging when it gets in the way of writing. I wish I had advice to offer, but I'm definitely going to try some of the things suggested here for myself.
 

MaeZe

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I'm terrible about remembering names but faces I recognize. So I know that person but can't remember their name.

But describing what I see has been a struggle for me as I learned (and I'm still learning) to write.

So I have my go to: Pinterest. (Ignore the weird looking link, the forum software thinks it ends in the middle of the address, but the link still works fine.)

=faces%7Ctyped]Pinterest faces.
 

cmhbob

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This is a fascinating thread because it sounds so familiar. I think when we read, we all put a particular face in place, and there's no guarantee that the faces any of us put in our minds will be anything like the one the author pictured when they were writing. When I read the Spenser books, I still picture Robert Urich and Avery Brooks. I doubt Parker had them in mind when he wrote those stories. Ditto the Jesse Stone series. I saw one movie with Tom Selleck before I read any of the books, and now Jesse Stone is forever Tom Selleck.

At any rate, for those of you looking for yet another way to visualize your characters, I offer casting websites. I found Backstage several years ago. I'm almost certainly going to be using it for my next series because the cast is growing exponentially from The Sad Girl. Use the "Search for Talent" option to narrow down who you're looking for.
 

ChaseJxyz

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I honestly didn't expect to get much responses and definitely not so many other people who are dealing with the same thing as me 😭 Thank you so much for the tips and assurances!! I'm going to check out those links and try different things out.

@NickyRainbow My roommate is so bad at this, there'll be a Special Guest on SVU or something and she'll ask me if that guy was on [insert other thing here] and I have to keep telling her I don't know!!! And I had absolutely no idea that the actors in Cloud Atlas were playing "themselves" in the various lives. But I'm really good at picking out voice actors, which is usually how I identify people.
 
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Introversion

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This is a fascinating thread because it sounds so familiar. I think when we read, we all put a particular face in place, and there's no guarantee that the faces any of us put in our minds will be anything like the one the author pictured when they were writing.
That, but then sometimes I’ll watch a film adaptation of a favorite book, and never, ever again be able to see that character as looking like anything but the actor who was cast in the film. Looking at you, Viggo Mortensen…
 

ChaseJxyz

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OH I totally forgot to add: lots of people are saying how they form an image early on and it's impossible to change and it really makes me think about the "assumed to be white unless stated otherwise" issue. Another thing to keep in mind.
 
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Tazlima

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I actually wonder how well people who see faces normally can describe those faces anyway.

The whole issue with faceblindness is that we see the parts but don't have that special ability to perceive/recall the whole. Okay. fine. But what is a description exception a compilation of parts? If you hear a major or minor chord, you can hear what the combined sounds are like, but if you had to describe the "sound" of a chord to someone who had never heard one, what would you say? You might describe the chord as "do, mi, and sol, all played at once, but knowing what do, mi, and sol sound like doesn't convey what it's really like to hear them in combination, any more than "flour, sugar, egg, oil, and baking powder" describes the flavor of a cake. To someone who knows chords, you might use the technical terms, "major, minor, diminished 7th, whatever" but that's just shorthand for something the other person already understands.

Face shorthand typically boils down to things we faceblind can actually perceive - either 1) an overall feature (moon-faced), 2) a general impression that actually isn't a physical description and can be interpreted a thousand ways (a kind face), or 3) a collection of features/common element (wrinkled, angular, etc). Beyond that, 9 times out of 10, a facial description will focus on the expression rather than the features.

In short, I suspect describing a face in the "whole" manner is basically impossible. People may be able to close their eyes and see the face of a loved one, but if they wished to transfer that image to the mind of someone who had never met that person, how would they really do that? If they use words, well... you and I know those words, too. There's no secret, special vocabulary they can tap into. We're all subject to the same linguistic boundaries, so as writers, we're on equal footing with everybody else.

Heck, we may even have an advantage, in that we've spent our entire lives recognizing people by the parts instead of the whole. We have no choice but to notice and remember the stuff that CAN be described in words, and practice makes perfect.
 
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Liz_V

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I'm mildly face-blind as well. I can recognize close friends and family all right, but acquaintences are a dice roll. And characters on a TV show had better not change their hairstyle halfway through, or I'm completely lost.

As a reader, I'm largely oblivious to what characters look like. One of my favorite authors is Barbara Hambly, who has an almost bardic way with character descriptions, and the only reason I know what color some of her characters' hair is is because I've looked it up so many times as an example in this kind of discussion.

So as a writer, of course, I'm crap at character physical descriptions, because I (a) don't know and (b) don't care. I'm fine with describing something that matters to the kind of person they are -- the way an experienced fighter moves, for example, or the rumpled clothing of someone who just rolled out of the bed they fell into drunk last night -- but as for what they just plain look like... :Shrug: I usually manage to work in what I call "police blotter" description: hair color/length, eye color, maybe a hint about height or general build, but that's about it. And even that feels forced.

I struggled for years with this, because my ex-writing group insisted they couldn't empathize with the characters if they didn't know what they looked like. (Turns out they couldn't empathize with descriptions, either; they just weren't interested.) These days, I've pretty much decided "Screw it." I'll put in the description that matters to me, and if someone can't get into the story because they don't know if the main character is blonde or brunette, then I'm just not the writer for them.

(Though I will say, as others have indicated, if you're going to mention a character's looks, get it in there early. Else readers will supply their own description, and if you later say something that conflicts with it, they'll swear you're wrong til their dying breath.)

Interestingly, of the stories I've had professionally published, I don't think I've mentioned hair or eye color even once.
 

NickyRainbow

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I honestly didn't expect to get much responses and definitely not so many other people who are dealing with the same thing as me 😭 Thank you so much for the tips and assurances!! I'm going to check out those links and try different things out.

@NickyRainbow My roommate is so bad at this, there'll be a Special Guest on SVU or something and she'll ask me if that guy was on [insert other thing here] and I have to keep telling her I don't know!!! And I had absolutely no idea that the actors in Cloud Atlas were playing "themselves" in the various lives. But I'm really good at picking out voice actors, which is usually how I identify people.
It's so interesting that you should say that, because I'm particularly good at recognising voice actors, too! Especially when it comes to video games. We adapt however we can, I suppose!
 

frimble3

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Agreeing with all the 'don't sweat it' and 'don't get into details' above. Also somewhat face-blind, as well as near-sighted and not really a people-person. I have to admit, I don't really visualize characters as I read. I especially don't think of things like cheekbones and smiles. Hair, height, skin colour, gender and we're good. Again, beware of 'default white', clue the reader into that right away.
 

mccardey

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Slightly off-topic, but not really

There was a brilliant bit on the news down here a couple of weeks ago about prosopagnosia (I have it too) and how to explain it to people. As we all know, it's almost impossible to explain what a thing you have always lacked is like! They've found that a way to induce a similar experience in people is to show them upside-down black and white faces of famous people with the hair missing - just like the ones we were shown in tests, but upside-down. Interestingly, not only can they not recognise most of the famous people, they often miss picking their own kids*.

*I think a few of us know how that feels *blush*
 
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