characters / setting / writers tips

Writer’s Tip #76: Use a Photo to Develop Characters, Setting

When you read your story, does it sound off, maybe you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know you’ve done something wrong? Sometimes–maybe even lots of times–there are simple fixes. These writer’s tips will come at you once a week, giving you plenty of time to go through your story and make the adjustments.

This tip was brought to mind by one of my readers. My current WIP is so far from its beginnings that I’d forgotten it started with photos to draw character profiles and Google Earth images to create the setting details. But it did. I remember browsing through internet images of paleoanthropologists, staring in their eyes to see if they were Kali or Zeke (my two main characters). Did they have her fragile spirit or his swash-buckling former SEAL-gone-scientist persona? Once I found the right image, I read everything I could find about that sort of person and came up with a character that worked. Then, I pasted the pictures to the walls of my office so every time they were in scene, I’d see them, notice how they moved, remember how their head tilted in thought or their brows furrowed in confusion.


Settings were the same. To make them authentic, I searched out locations on Google Earth, then traveled the streets, the towns, the neighborhoods to get a sense of what my characters would experience. If Kali or Zeke walked from Columbia University to her apartment a couple of blocks away, I walked it first to see what bodega they passed, how busy were the streets, what type of people visited local businesses. This way, I could add flavor, emotion to my story. A few times, I had to adjust the scene because Google Street View told me it couldn’t have happened the way I’d written. Anyone with a wide audience knows they tell you all your mistakes, so the less that slip through, the better.

google earth street view columbia

So this tip is a big one. Don’t think you can skip visualizing characters and settings. Take the time to find out about your story’s fundamentals and then let your people and locations drive the story.

I’m not the only one who uses Google Earth as a writing tool. Click here to see a unique way one reader incorporated Google Earth (using a GPS logger–amazing). Here’s one Duke professor’s writing course that uses Google Earth.

More on Google Earth and writing:

Tech Tip for Writers #65: Google Street View

How to Virtually Visit a Location You Can’t Drop In On

Writer’s Tip #47: Authenticate Setting

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Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of dozens of books on integrating tech into education, webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. 

33 thoughts on “Writer’s Tip #76: Use a Photo to Develop Characters, Setting

    • If you’re a visual learner, it makes a huge difference. Of course, in my case, it’s because I create a whole backstory based on what I read into their eyes, and the lines on their faces, and the slight grimace of their mouth. I can come up with lots of stories based on their faces!


  1. It wasn’t even 15 minutes ago that I was trying to think of ways for me to be better at being a plotter, seeing that I’ve finally realized that pantsing it isn’t working for me. As I thought, I was beefing up a photo for my post for my blog. It hit me like a ton of bricks. While I do the outline for a scene, have a photo or more that depicts what is going on.

    “Great minds think alike.”😀❤


  2. This is a fantastic tip, Jacqui. In my last job I worked in a design area where people developed ‘characters’ to use in conferences as ‘typical clients’. They would make life-size dummies of them and place them around the office. One day we had a techie come in and he told us later how he thought we were all rude because no one would talk to him! I wish i had all that material again to make my characters for around the house😀


    • Oh that’s funny. I hope his comment was tongue-in-cheek. Seriously, it’s amazing the story lines that pop up when one stares at a picture. I create all sorts of biographical material about that person.


  3. Hey, did you get that tip from me LOL🙂 Been doing this since the first page of my first novel. Actually for the Bequia Mysteries, the characters came to me first, then the setting and the story. I use images for all my characters, Bequia Mysteries, Sci-fi, any story. I call it my casting notes. I do the same for setting, and I do use Google earth. God, what a tool. Rather than pinning or taping up the images of my characters and settings, I have a small photo gallery at the foot of the page as I write. I add to it as other characters and settings are incorporated into the story. So as I type that gallery is always present at the foot of the page as a reference. (For the pen and paper or typewriter set this probably won’t work.)


    • I almost didn’t post it–it seems so obvious. But then, when I mentioned it to some writer friends, they were surprised. Hadn’t thought of it. That’s the backstory, Michael.

      On another note–your book is now about ten down in my TBR list–rising quickly. I’m looking forward to reading it.


  4. Great tip Jacqui! I’ve used Google Earth when writing, and it does help to give you confidence about the accuracy of the story you’re telling. Also, it’s like jumping into the story that you’re telling, which is fun.


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