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Fantastic faceclaims and where to find them

This is very long and incoherent and I’m not even sorry. 😛

For the sake of this post, I should start by explaining the term “faceclaim”. It refers to a physical representation of a fictional character of your own creation, frequently employed by all kinds of writers and roleplayers. When you create a character, you might picture them looking like a particular person – that person is then the character’s faceclaim. Some people like having a photo of that person on their desk as they write for inspiration. Others might use a picture to show other people what their character looks like, because a bunch of us can never get a clear image of what a written character looks like without it, it’s a thing. Like casting an actor to play the role of your character. I hope this explains the basic concept.

The bulk of my writing for the past almost 20 years tends to be in play-by-post roleplaying games, but I also do other writing and tabletop roleplaying, so there are a LOT of characters that have been created over the years, and I love finding photos of them to show myself and others what they look like.

Some people are fine with finding stock photos (I don’t, because you’ll literally only have the one photo to play with), or use different kinds of models or maybe even real people. You might write about a grandmotherly character and picture your own grandmother, for instance. I much prefer actors. There are many reasons for this, and it’s not just because I love film and TV. For one: you’ll have a lot more photos to choose from (hrm, your mileage may vary), and since it’s like casting a person in a role, using an actor makes sense. They’ve been cast as Your Character! Plus if one of the characters they’ve played really looks like your character, it makes it all the more fun to watch.

Here’s the thing, though: you might create a character and then find someone you think looks like them. Sometimes it’s the other way around – you find a photo of someone and go “I want a character like that!” I’ve done both. A recent example was wanting a character like Miriam Margolyes, i.e. a cantankerous older lady with zero fucks to give. Obviously she was going to look like Miriam Margolyes as well, and she’s now quite happily teaching Divination at Hogwarts. (For that matter, 1995’s Mr Bennett has taught the kids about ghosts since that particular PBP game’s inception in 2004.)

Sometimes you get inspired by something random and create a character around it. When we saw a mystery play at a local theatre, I ended up creating a flying instructor based on the look of one of the characters in it. Or that time I was watching an episode of River Cottage, where Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall showed a picture of himself as a child, which formed the base of one of my favourite ever characters. Of course I haven’t found that photo again, so a young Heath Ledger in photoshopped glasses had to suffice. Because yeah, sometimes you have to add glasses, or change their hair/eye colour a bit. It’s not a biggie if everything else looks right. (See also: this post’s featured image.)

Sometimes you have to search high and low for someone and have to make do with something that’s mostly right. I have a character called Maighréad – described as tall, beautiful and busty with oodles of red curls. I could find actresses that had the right hair or a right-ish body, but none that had both. Like Dead Calm kind of Nicole Kidman has the right sort of hair and is pretty, but Kidman’s the completely wrong build. I eventually started watching Mad Men and whaddaya know? There she was, the goddess that is Christina Hendricks. Granted, she doesn’t have the curls, but hey, maybe Maighréad had decided to do something different with her hair for the photo?

Sometimes faceclaims fall into your lap entirely by accident. Once upon a time we watched a film called The Woods, set at a boarding school where there was a Mean Girl with long, blonde hair (Rachel Nichols) and it was like seeing my Slytherin Mean Girl Agatha come to life. Another was coming across a film on the Syfy channel, and finding someone (Ken Olin, specifically as he was mid-to-late-1990s) who could only have been more perfect for my Eamonn if he hailed from County Sligo. Didn’t expect it in a million years, but there he was, and he was perfect.

Maybe I should mention I’m also unflinchingly loyal and dedicated to the actors I cast as my faceclaims, or at least the ones I’m most fond of. If something comes up that says it has one of them in it, I’ll automatically go “oooh, yes please”. Or I’ll deliberately try to find stuff to watch they’ve been in. Sometimes it works out – I’ve enjoyed the heck out of Boardwalk Empire, Continuum, thirtysomething and Brothers & Sisters, for example. Sometimes … less so. (GI Joe? Frozen?) It’s very hit and miss.

In case anyone was wondering, yes, Richard Armitage (as Guy of Gisborne) is absolutely part of my creative team! I didn’t know he was perfect until s3 of Robin Hood started, when I suddenly gasped, and thought “OMG that’s him, that’s Edgar!” (Incidentally, Mr Thornton in North & South is Edgar when he dresses up and goes to Russia to see his old mentor – who bears a striking resemblance to Sinéad Cusack as Mrs Thornton. Funny how that happened, eh?) It got slightly weird-yet-cool once, actually. All the characters I’ve mentioned so far are written in Swedish, but at one point I was trying to write dialogue for Edgar and it came out in English, because RA’s voice in my head was so clear.

Sometimes you can have a lot of fun with what your character looks like. In Rifts, my Cyber-Knight character was described as looking like Chris Hemsworth from pretty much day one, so him being the pretty one has always been a bit of a running joke. The dragon in our party later decided to model his human appearance on my character, so they end up looking like brothers, except the dragon has a higher Physical Beauty stat. But hey, Liam Hemsworth’s cute too. 😉

Most of my tabletop roleplaying characters don’t have a faceclaim, actually. It’s only more recently that I’ve decided on some of them, because it’s fun to make group shots to visualise our characters.

Sometimes you create a character and pick a faceclaim and when you find out more about the actor you find they have similarities. I created a character who’s essentially a vet for magical creatures. He looks like a young Colin Farrell, because he’s Irish, handsome, and the young woman he’s there to be shipped with (Carey Mulligan as Sally Sparrow in Doctor Who, not that you were asking) would be into him. I wrote the character as being enthusiastically chatty, in a sort of adorkable way. When I later found myself watching Colin Farrell interviews (from more recent years) on YouTube, he was … enthusiastically chatty in a sort of adorkable way. Huh. Who’d’ve thought? It can get much weirder than that, which I’ll get to in a sec.

I’ve not been particularly focused on the “how to find them” part of the title so far. Mainly because I either know what a character looks like when I create them, or finding someone isn’t particularly hard. One of my latest finds, for my Symbaroum character, was supposed to fit into a high fantasy/medieval type setting, ideally, and be young, blonde, and have the sort of entitled noble face you’d like to punch. “How about the guy that played King Arthur in Camelot?” I said to myself. “To the googles!” And yeah, there he was, bam. Jamie Campbell Bower in Camelot ticked all the boxes, including the sort of vacant expression on some of the photos.

Sometimes it’s a general idea of someone and you look up pictures to see if they match your idea. Sometimes you do oddly specific image searches that makes you feel like you’ll be put on a watchlist somewhere. Sometimes you just happen to come across someone by accident. Basically, sometimes it’s easy, sometimes you have to look very hard, and sometimes you go “eh, you’ll do”. A lot of times it’s “eh, you’ll do”, actually. Some people you’re more invested in than others.

I was trying to find a photo of my Vampire: The Masquerade character a couple of months ago. Now, he’s a 1920s Italian-American mobster of a specific physical stature. I toyed with the idea of a young Orson Welles, but decided nah. (I’m already using him for other purposes anyway, because duh, of course I am.) Then I thought “ooh, but what about Christian McKay as Orson Welles?” and that was closer, but still didn’t seem quite right. He didn’t look like he might bash in someone’s kneecaps, frankly.

Ronald Zehrfeld as Walter Weintraub in Babylon Berlin s3? So close! Absolutely the right era, absolutely the right kind of character on several levels (the layers, OMG I really hope he returns for s4), and absolutely the right kind of build of man, but my character doesn’t have a moustache, there are very few photos of Walter Weintraub online (boo hiss), and the ones that do don’t look like my character at all. Ronald Zehrfeld as himself doesn’t really fit the character either, but I’ve bought a couple of DVDs he’s in anyway, because I could happily watch him talking German at me all day, happysigh.

In the end I ended up googling Al Capone, who clearly didn’t look anything like my guy either, but somehow the image search threw in some photos from Boardwalk Empire, where Al Capone was a character. Specifically, I found a photo of Al Capone and his brother Ralph (see an altered version below) and went “heyyy … this might work, you know”. Ralph Capone’s actor as himself (Domenick Lombardozzi) looks nothing like my character, but as Ralph Capone?! Are you freaking kidding me?! Spot on!

Frankie and Benny - or Ralph and Al Capone
Stephen Graham as Al Capone is, incidentally, his best friend’s faceclaim in-game, because I have no shame.

So, Ralph Capone is literally the reason I started watching Boardwalk Empire and why I’ve been watching it in the order I have (season 1,4,5,2,3 #SorryNotSorry). When your character’s backstory mentions him having been handy with a baseball bat in the past, and Ralph Capone then shows up with a baseball bat on screen? I had such a fangirl moment I very nearly screamed out loud watching it. (See also: my Instagram stories.)

I did promise I’d spill the beans on how much weirder similarities between your character and their faceclaim can get. The answer is: apparently very. There’s not much info about Domenick Lombardozzi out there (much like RA, he keeps himself to himself) and both his IMDb and Wikipedia entries are pretty bare aside from a filmography. He did do a Zoom podcast thing back in May that I came across on YouTube recently and watched because hey, he’s a native New Yorker, let’s get some accent tips if nothing else, and I was curious. It started out in a kind of “huh, well, that’s a funny coincidence” way. (He’s a real foodie and does boxing. Stuff like that.) I sat there thinking “wow, imagine that, how oddly fitting”. Then the similarities started piling up even further, and further, and further, to the point where I was trying to stifle a giggle, and later on simply lost it and burst right out laughing. Let’s just say I couldn’t have unintentionally picked a more perfect person had I tried! It was downright spooky. (Seriously though, he may play real tough guy dudebros on screen but in real life? 10/10 super adorable, would totally give a massive hug if ever met him IRL, and I’m now watching The Wire because he’s in it. I even plan on watching The Irishman at some point, and that’s like four hours long, but I did say I’m very loyal and devoted to my favourite faceclaims.)

Now, one of the things I particularly like about choosing actors as faceclaims is that you get to see the person talk and move around, and that’s such a treat. If you’re really lucky you’ve found yourself a muse! Watching them on screen makes you notice things about the person portraying your character that you might end up using when writing. Anything from facial expressions to the way they take up space in a room and move around. Perhaps they’re a great dancer, singer, have a smile that lights up the room, a glint in their eye, how they carry themselves. You get a physical impression of your character in a way you might not otherwise do, and it makes them much easier to visualise when you’re writing.

Sometimes you end up seeing slightly more than you expected or bargained for as well (Between the Sheets, amirite? And rather than a Richard Armitage series I’ve only seen once, years ago, I actually mean the couple of Entourage episodes I watched super randomly ~ahem~ the other night) but uh, sure, you never know when those mental images may come in useful too I guess??? (Hrm, well, in this case my vampire is a gentleman, so it’s more like: “I don’t want the details, just tell me you made sure she had a good time?” He’ll smile bashfully at me and reply, “We both had a wonderful time, doll.” And then we’ll high-five or something. We’re on very good terms.)

Anyhoo.

To summarise this long, potentially incoherent ramble: I love my faceclaims. Some are elusive, some drop into your lap when you least expect it, and some have the character built around them, but they are a lovely tool to get to know your fictional creations better. Would totally recommend, especially if you end up liking an actor you previously didn’t “know” as an added bonus.

Do you use faceclaims when your write and/or do tabletop roleplaying? Do you find them useful for picturing your character? Do you have any favourite faceclaims you keep coming back to?

Traxy Thornfield

A Swedish introvert residing in Robin Hood Country (Nottingham, UK) with a husband and two cats. She's an eager participant in tabletop and play-by-post roleplaying, woodworking, photography and European travel. Will get a novel out one of these days, if she doesn't get too distracted along the way.

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