Our characters, in the ‘flesh’, so to speak

I know when I read someone else’s work, I have an image of what their characters look like. Sometimes it runs contrary to how the person is described, for some incomprehensible reason, but it happens. I’m not a neurobiologist, so I have no explanation, except good old human nature. One man decided to feed the descriptions of literary characters from classic novels into police composite-sketch software. Maria wrote about this in her writing blog so naturally I had to check it out. The fascinating results can be seen at the website The Composites.

But how do we visualize our own characters when we write? Myself, I do what lots of other people do; I think of actors or models that have the right features and perhaps even personality. That’s what happened with Alan Mueller, Valerie’s brother-in-law in my manuscript Old Dogs. He needed to be blond and blue-eyed like Valerie’s family, to make her even more of the odd one out with her dark curly hair. Before I even wrote the first line describing him, his humorous expression and personality were forming in my mind and I was reminded of Wash from Firefly. So my Alan, taking his name from the actor who portrays Wash, is Alan Tudyk in my mind.

And you can ask any of my writing buddies, they know that Daniel looks like my favorite celebrity crush, Clive Owen. The whole reason I started writing Old Dogs is because I had chosen Mr. Owen in his role as King Arthur to be the face of Garoben, in my huge rambling fantasy saga about Rayne, and I had decided to leave Rayne’s story alone for awhile but wanted to keep in the habit of writing. So that exercise turned into a novel length manuscript for which I am currently in the throes of an agent search. But Arthur wasn’t quite the right image I wanted for Captain Daniel Hollingsworth, ex- RAF, now commercial airline pilot. When I describe Daniel, I’m describing the lovely Mr.Owen. So, back to Google I went. (It’s such a hardship, doing research, finding pictures of gorgeous men to inspire my muse to do something. It’s a sacrifice I must make because I’m a writer, dahlingk…;-) And I found something more like this.

Another character that I had a hard time finding an image for in Old Dogs was Valerie. I knew what she looked like in my mind; long dark curly hair, pale freckled skin, blue eyes, short and small, but not frail-looking. She has curves. Well, there’s no way I could find all that in any one actor, and Googling things like ‘dark curly hair blue eyes’ got me lots of the right hair, but nothing else that fit my criteria. So I went to a model/actor search website that allowed me to specify exact criteria. The Donna Baldwin Agency has a database of actors and models of all types and is searchable to narrow down those zillions of photos of people. Honestly, I can’t remember if this is the website where I found the pic of the closest I could find of Valerie’s description, but it was one of these sites. Your mileage may vary.

I probably got this idea from an old online role-playing game I played several lifetimes ago. It was a bulletin board based kind of RPG, which meant that there was a lot of imagination and thought that went into the action. People interacted with each other for the most part, rather than a game-master running the action. Those sorts of adventures happened as well, but most of the population of the city of Ramsalon lived and worked and fought and played with each other. And each character’s post had an icon beside it, offering a visual image of that character for the other players. I’m positive that a great deal of my writing skills were formed in that environment. As a result, my character Rayne and her adventures are based on that gameplay. I never found an actress that fulfilled my image of Rayne. But I had written a fanfic based on the television show Highlander that was archived on a fanfic website. Someone graciously provided an graphic for the title page of my story and this was the image that looked like Rayne. I still don’t know who that artist was or where they got their idea but I am grateful. This. Is. Rayne.

However we do it, with written descriptions, index cards, or actual drawings or photographs, the fact remains that most of us writers have some strong feelings about our characters appearance. And even if these images are never seen by anyone but us, it can still be a powerful tool to inspire and prompt us to greater heights of writing.

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777 Challenge post

All right, Juli Morgan, here you go. From the 77th page of my manuscript Old Dogs, seven lines down, the next seven lines are here for your perusal.

Valerie gave her a grudging nod. “Yes, he’s nice.”

“So?”

“So, we both like movies and books and he’s about fifteen years younger than me.”

“Age is just a number.”

“When did you turn into such a cougar?”

“I’m not! I just want to make sure you’re enjoying yourself.”

Feeling more than a little tipsy, Valerie nodded. “Damn you, I am enjoying myself. But I turn into a pumpkin pretty soon.”

Just Do It!

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

That Aristotle guy said it with more words, but he and Nike have the same idea in mind. It’s good advice.

But, being the giant procrastinator that I am, I write this post to remind myself as much as anyone, that the only way to realize your dreams is to do something about them. In my case, it means that in order to sell my writing, or to even finish something to try to sell it, first, I’ve got to write. And that means every day, I’ve got to get something out of my brain and onto the page/hard drive.

Every. Single. Day.

What’s keeping me from achieving this simple goal, you ask? How hard can it be to rattle out 1000 or so words, especially when you brag about how you can do it in something like thirty minutes? First of all, you aren’t supposed to be listening when I make such silly claims. Yes, I can do it, and sometimes I don’t have to dump those words like last month’s leftovers. Occasionally some of those words are even good. But very often they’re pure crap, but encasing a seed of an idea. The words may not be great in and of themsleves, but that little idea is there. And without the crap surrounding it, if that idea was still firmly stuck in my brain, such that it is, that tiny inspiration would never have a chance to receive the careful attention and encouragement of my friends who critique my writing and help me coax that seed into germination. The novel-length story I’ve ‘finished’ started out as nothing more than an excuse to fantasize about a certain British actor that I have had a celebrity crush on for years. Nothing more than that.

Aristotle speaks of excellence gained by repetition. It’s a common fact that any muscle, without regular use, will atrophy and lose its strength. The brain is not different, even if it’s not a muscle per se. Still, those neural pathways have to be stimulated into reinforcing old connections and making new ones. Repetition, repeated writing, thinking, reasoning, all serve to make those paths deeper, wider, more conducive to the frenzied electrical activity that our thoughts and ideas are made of.

Writing is what I do, yet I still find other things to do besides write. Hell, this blog entry is a distraction from the scene I should be writing. But it’s still writing. I’m taking my idea out of my brain and putting it where it can invade your brain and maybe shake a thought or two loose. Maybe this idea even likes what it finds in your mind and decides to stick around awhile, kick the tires, see where it can go. Take it places, show it a good time. If it inspires an idea that leads to more writing, excellent. But even if it just makes you think about it, even for just a few minutes, it has done its job.

Go forth and write, my friends. Make it a habit, show writer’s block who’s boss.

I’m going to do that right now.

Right after I check my email.

Readers are like Helen Keller

 See that little girl on the left? That’s Helen Keller, the famous deaf and blind woman who   learned to read and speak and went on to do Great Things, with the help of her teacher, the woman on the right, Anne Sullivan.

Now, you may ask yourself, what in tarnation does this have to do with writing? I’m so glad you asked. Read the paragraph above again and then think about it for a moment. I’ll wait.

Done? Okay, in case there are some of you still scratching your heads, I will elaborate. Because if someone (my instructor and author-hero Jill Ciment) hadn’t explained it like this, I’d have never come up with the idea on my own.

You see, our readers are like little Miss Helen Keller. In the dark, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, understanding nothing, until we, in the role of Anne Sullivan, show them the way by the words we choose to write. Now I’m not saying that my stories are going to inspire someone to go out and be a great philanthropist, I’m happy if someone just enjoys what I’ve written and has a few hours pleasant distraction. But, unless I tell that blind, deaf reader what is going on in my story, how are they supposed to know?

I know, I’ve just been talking about streamlining and making sure my prose is not too wordy, but there’s a difference between describing a scene so that someone understands what’s happening and where the characters are, and a ‘filmed version’ of what’s going on. I am all too often guilty of describing the setting in great detail. I have to remember to think like I might if I were leading Helen Keller by the hand. Tell the important things, right off the bat, so the reader can get a handle on the action instead of being bewildered by the details.

Think of yourself as a diver on a diving board. You know that water is cold, but jumping in is the only way to tell the story. Bouncing on the end of the diving board doesn’t get that story told any faster or easier, it just adds extra information that the reader  really doesn’t need.

So, jump in already!