Why should you create story/character boards?
While they’re notorious as productivity black holes, storyboards and character boards a) are great ways to develop story elements and b) are great to reference as you write, revise, and edit. This is especially true for writers who struggle to develop strong descriptions or visualize the appearance of characters and settings—instead of trying to come up with sensory details on your own, you can draw upon photographs to guide your word choices and help you “see” your story more clearly in your head (which translates to a clearer story on the page). And, they can be a fun way to relax and still make progress on your WIP, as long as you don’t allow yourself to spend too much time on them.
Why do story/character boards need curated?
Technically, there’s no wrong way to create a story or character board: every person will have different aesthetic preferences, and every story and character will have different aesthetics, too. But I do think that there are ways to make this tool even more useful no matter what sort of story you’re creating—and, if you’ve ever looked at other authors or artists and wondered how are they so good at creating mood/story/character boards, there are ways for you to achieve your own version of said aesthetic excellence with just a few tweaks.
How do you curate story/character boards?
Before dealing with those tweaks, I want to briefly mention methods or platforms for creating boards. Pinterest is an obvious choice, but if you don’t have Pinterest or don’t like Pinterest, it’s just as easy to save photographs on your computer or phone and organize them into specific folders the same way you’d create boards or sub-boards. There are also countless platforms where you can put those pictures together into the collages often seen online—I use Canva because it’s easy for me, but a quick online search turns up many others. Picking a method/platform that’s easiest for you is most important.
Back on-topic, there are four elements to consider when creating a story or character board: color, tone, variety, and balance. Covering all these bases always, without fail, makes my boards come together into a visually-pleasing, useful, and cohesive final product.
The goal isn’t to make every board look exactly the same or to follow another person’s color preferences; rather, you should aim for internal coherence with a board’s own aesthetic. One of the easiest ways to achieve this is to make sure the photographs you choose have coordinating undertones or editing styles—for instance, the colors are all cool-toned or neutrals, or all of the photos have a faded look to them. Contrasting elements can be mixed, but doing so all the time runs the risk of the end product looking messy by accident rather than on purpose. Matching undertones and editing styles creates harmony even if the subjects of the pictures themselves are quite different.
In this instance, tone means that the emotional mood of the photographs either match or purposefully contrast to create a specific effect. This can be related to things like color, but often it’s more abstract than that and may even involve the types of quotes or text you include along with purely visual elements. Is the tone of your setting happy, inviting, busy, depressed, abandoned, eerie, dangerous, overwhelming, bright, violent, or sentimental? Is the personality of your character, including preferences to their attitude to their beliefs or worldview, coming through in the pictures and quotes you choose? Aim to have the most specific tone as possible—really capture the essence of the setting or character inspiring the board. The more the mood can be felt just by glancing over the board as a whole, the more useful and visually appealing it will be.
Don’t save pictures of people, settings, objects, or designs that are too similar—otherwise, the board will appear repetitive rather than inviting, monolithic rather than stimulating. Even if you’re saving photos to reference for a specific setting, don’t only choose photos that have the same style: look for both macro and micro shots, and show particular elements or details that are important (objects in a room, a type of plant that grows in a forest, time of day, lighting, angles, etc.). For characters, don’t simply save outfit inspiration or a bunch of pictures of paintbrushes because they like to paint—include foods they like, photos that place them in an activity with others, quirks about their appearance, quotes that resonate with their mindset or beliefs, or things that they would find funny, beautiful, or noteworthy. The more variety that is included, the more the board will mimic real life, and the more useful it will be to reference later when you need to develop a character or describe a scene.
Lastly, try to balance all of the elements of a board. Stagger similar photos so that they aren’t all lumped together; include quotes alongside pictures rather than having a board that’s solely one or the other. When putting together a collage, place photos of similar objects or similar color schemes opposite one another so that the eye isn’t drawn only to one area or corner of the collage. Organize the variety of types of photos in a way that is easy for you to access and is easy to understand (particularly for boards or collages that you want to use as prose inspiration for later).
These elements, while specific, are flexible enough to apply to any story or character boards (even with my own style, there’s a range of variety in colors, subjects, and moods depending upon what element a board focuses on). Most of all, though, have fun—let your own tastes and personality shine through, and do what makes the most sense for you and your WIP. And remember not to get sucked too far into the black hole! Your story still needs to be written.