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  • Writer's pictureFrederick Gero Heimbach

Novel Faces

Aritifical intelligence. Neural networks. Machine learning. We throw these terms around. We use them interchangeably even though they mean different things. But our fuzzy understanding doesn't prevent us from playing with the free tools that have sprung up as computing power has finally made these technologies practical.

Maybe you've played around with ChatGPT. It's an AI that can converse with you, giving very detailed, mostly true, answers to your questions. It can even write you an A-minus level term paper, if you don't mind appearing as a bland, unoriginal parrot of the Conventional Wisdom. (Maybe because you are a bland, unoriginal parrot...)

Then there are those AI tools that do the same thing but with portraits, mooshing together multiple inputs into something new, if not exactly original. Michelangelo it ain't, but if you want to create portraits that look like what you want, and you want to skip all that learning a skill crap, AI image makers are for you.

Wait—did someone say portraits?

Fictional Characters: Getting the Headshots

Character development, along with plot development, is the principle preparatory work for writing fiction. For long form fiction, character development can be complex. I'll save a full description of my character development process for a later post, but briefly, I use no less than three different systems of personality typing, the Meyers-Briggs Personalities, the Enneagram Types, and this list of fictional archetypes. These systems are somewhat wonkish and prone to spreadsheet-thot but I find strong, identifiably human personalities do emerge from filling out the boxes. There are additional tools I have to analyze how the various characters would interact with each other. The final step it to find a headshot, a portrait of the character so that their physical appearance is always clear in my mind.

Casting Real-Live Actors

In the dark ages, way back in the distant past when AI tools were not available, I would search the internet for faces of actors who I thought would fit my characters. In effect, I became a director casting a script. This was mostly successful; famous actors get famous for their distinctive looks as much as for their acting talent. Think especially of those actors prone to typecasting: John Wayne, Audrey Hepburn, James Dean. They are living archetypes.

Casting a novel this way is great, except there might be specific physical traits that come out wrong: hair color, say, or race. The picture I download is going to be influential; it's not good if it's not exactly right. How to solve this problem?

New Way to Create Character Headshots

If you're thinking, "I bet this is where he circles back to AI," you're dead right. In fact, there's a free AI/machine learning-based image generator that I use all the time for character development. It's called ArtBreeder.

Parent images and the resulting AI-generated images
Artbreeder splicer tool

Using Artbreeder's Splicer tool, I select three "parent" images, choosing faces that are at least vaguely similar to what I what. I set parameters for expression, race, age, and many others. To these the AI adds a certain amount of randomness. Then it starts generating images, four at a time. I hit the refresh button repeatedly. Whenever I see an image that I like, I save it.

I've learned to be picky; I will typically generate hundreds or even thousands of images to get a few

worth saving. To speed the process along, I periodically trash the parents and choose three new parents from among the best of the recently created images. In this way I get the features locked in. At that point I can start selecting for verisimilitude.

The AI is clever but profoundly stupid; it will spit out incredibly ugly and freakish pictures all day if you give it too much leeway.

Main Characters of Buckingham Runner

Six characters in my latest novel Buckingham Runner rated a headshot. Here are the results of many iterations of faces. A lot of time went into these, although I wouldn't say a lot of work; I find Artbreeder recreational and I'll often end the evening generating a few pictures for fun.

Here's HRH Alfred, Prince of Wales, bracketed by the other nodes of his love triangle: the smart, bossy Joan Radson on the left and the dangerously attractive Rebecca Stone.on the right. No spoilers here; he ends up with one of them (sort of) but I'm not saying who.

Alfred looks a bit like a young Prince Charles, and that's no coincidence. He's meant to be reasonably handsome but, of course, women find him attractive mainly because of his wealth, fame, and poor-little-rich-boy situation. (His life is dominated by an idiotic palace bureaucracy; it's pretty horrible.) Joan's appeal comes from her Ivory Girl wholesomeness (does that reference date me? Oh, yes, it does) while Rebecca is meant to be a blond seductress, a girl of instant attractiveness. She has two strands of hair above her eyes that are always allowed to hang free, something I couldn't get Artbreeder to replicate without parent images with that specific feature.

These girls are not just Alfred's love interests; they are also co-conspirators in his plot to run away. The other students in the conspiracy are Chin Zhang, shown below on the left, a rowing champion (they call that sport "water" at Westminster School, btw) and the quiet, intense Rav Joshi on the right. They flank Alfred's personal bodyguard George Wilson, who is caught between his loyalty to the Palace and the role that fate has imposed upon him as Alfred's badly needed surrogate father.

Chin's face is the oldest of these pictures and dates from a time I was not very skilled at Artbreeder. His headshot seems crude to me now, although in fact he's not supposed to be particularly handsome. He's popular with the ladies because of his athleticism and because he's a classic Bad Boy. He enters Alfred's life as a bully and principal tormentor but he evolves into ... something I won't spoil. I'll only say it has something to do with performing amateur surgery on a Welsh Corgi.

Rav is Alfred's most loyal friend. He's brilliant but closed off and people don't know what to make of him. He plays a pivotal part at the end and, yes, there's a dog involved there too.

George has a mysterious past but it definitely included special ops and spy work. by training and temperament he is excessively cagey with his feelings and opinions. He is not someone you mess with.

As I said, Artbreeder is fun to use and there's no question I'll be using it for every novel I write going forward.

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