On the writing forums that I’ve belonged to over the years (yes, I’m of *such* advanced age), I’ve seen a lot of people do one or the other (or both) of the following:
1) Had clear visualizations of their characters and/or settings
2) Drawn pictures of their characters and/or settings.
I run into a stumbling block when it comes to things like that. Firstly, my brain doesn’t really work in pictures as much as concepts. Occasionally, if I concentrate really hard, I can summon up a mental image of something or someone, but it usually happens accidentally and I can’t hold onto it for very long. My brain works more in words than pictures – given my particular strengths and deficits overall, that fits the pattern.
The second stumbling block I run into is that I have no artistic ability whatsoever. Ask me to draw a picture and it’ll come out looking like something a kindergartener did. (Seriously, this is not only my opinion. It’s the opinion of anyone who’s ever seen anything I’ve drawn.) One of the issues is that I lack many spatial awareness skills, possibly in part fostered by my deficits in depth perception. (When I took an IQ test to get into the gifted program in my high school, I scored very highly on the verbal part, but so poorly on the spatial part that I didn’t get into the program.) It means that even if I can get past stick figures, my drawings are always very flat, disproportionate, and just generally off. I accept that.
And when it comes to characters, I’m cool. I don’t think it’s vital that I know exactly what a character looks like – I don’t believe the *reader* needs to know exactly what a character looks like. If I say that he’s ruggedly handsome, then you can put your own image on the guy so he fits your perception of ruggedly handsome, frex.
But I do write primarily SFF, and I have a fondness for maps. Maps are reasonably easy things to do even if you’re as stupid as I am about these things. I even made a map of a city last year, and while I’m sure it’s a riotously stupidly-laid-out city, it served its purpose and my having the map came tremendously in handy when I was writing the damn thing.
I have lots of maps hanging about on my computer, probably well over a dozen. They help me to put into pictures what I cannot in words – they help me define spaces in my world. As a political science major, political/national boundaries are important to me. There’s a reason that nearly all of my stories involve a political element. And more than character sketches or god forbid city sketches, maps make my imaginary worlds make sense to me.
Each writer works to their own strengths and tries to come up with workarounds for their deficits. This is one of my bigger ones; I still haven’t come up with a truly workaround-ly workaround for it, but I don’t think it’s significantly hampered me thus far. (Of course, I’m still unagented and unpublished, so what the hell do I know?)
If character sketches work for you, great. If those long character checklists/question sheets work for you, great.
Everyone has a “process”. Mine just tends to involve brightly-colored maps.