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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Where the hell did that idea come from? Or: The cruel tricks our muses play on us

The mysteries of where writing ideas come from has always fascinated me. How an author like Steven King, for example, can be so prolific and successful both heartens and discourages me as a potential writer. To someone like me, his rise to fame after the hordes of rejection letter he received spurs me to keep trying. Having read his memoir “On Writing”, I know where some of his ideas come from. I don’t have the background he does. My life has been relatively normal, even boring, but I still feel the need to write. I imagine I always will.

The creative process is a mystery, no doubt. All my writer friends joke about their respective muses. I’m pretty sure mine is more of the demonic nature, rather than some classical Greek icon wearing a flowing, diaphanous gown.  Mine is frequently late or altogether absent. Further evidence of his (I’m sure it’s a male, though I’m not exactly sure why) diabolical nature is evidenced by the fact that I get excellent ideas for current or new stories when I am swamped by other tasks.

Such has been the case lately. Just two classes and full-time work have me writing things that are analyses of other people’s work, all structured a certain way, worded in an academic fashion, or as close as I can manage to the style. And then, out of the blue, a scene embeds itself in my mind. There is no backstory, no logical progression, the people in it don’t even have names, but they are real and insist that I capture their moment somehow. I know better than to ignore this directive. To miss getting the idea down is to spend the rest of my life remembering only tantalizing glimpses of that original seed.  I certainly can take what I remember and turn it into something more, but it lacks that certain spark, the indefinable something that can only be captured in the moment in which the notion strikes. And the neglected characters are angry at being ignored and tease me with ‘what if?’ What if that story was The One, what if that story had more material accompanying it, what if the Great American Novel was lost
because you were too damned lazy to get up and get a paper and pen? I’m positive my  muse has leathern wings and stinks of sulfur.

But this time I didn’t ignore the idea. I have just over a thousand words describing the scene that was part dream, part mind wandering into sleep. They don’t have names yet, the two main characters, just a vaguely archaic setting where healing is done by firelight. The narrator is a priest of some kind in a world with multiple gods and his protector is a woman who is brash and crude by his reckoning. Chances are good that a novel like it already exists somewhere. The fantasy genre has a fair share of such role reversals, but this one is mine. I’ll let these two take me where they want, show me the parts of their lives they wish for me to see. Sounds like maybe I have some
issues with reality, doesn’t it? My writer friends and I joke about doing ‘what the voices inside my head tell me.’ That’s an eerily accurate way of describing the process for me. These people in my head have a substance, an existence that is undeniable, that I feel a need to convey as best I can into a medium that I jhope others will enjoy, sharing in their adventures.

But first, they need names.

What a scary thing to do…

scardycatSo, I took the last thirty pages or so of the Big Damn Story and put it in a new file and started rewriting, writing poor Garoben out and changing Rayne’s reactions and mental state accordingly. I like the major angst going on, but then, that’s just me. I don’t want the story to become such a mess or for her to be such a mess, but am enjoying exploring the emotions and evolving feelings she and everyone around her has during her recovery.

Yeah, none of this makes sense unless you read it. Some scenes have been reviewed by friends but the whole thing is still mostly in my head. As if it’s not enough that I’ll probably never finish it, then I have to go and muck around with the ending. It may not stick, but exploring the alternate ending is fun so far. Now if I can just make myself go back and write on the backstory leading up to this point, I’ll be doing good.

Okay, I’m doing it…

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 Rayne’s story is getting a alternate ending. I won’t say new just yet since I haven’t yet written it but the bug has well and truly bitten and I’m going to explore she and Keresh becoming a couple at the end of this long journey. That may interfere with her returning to her family farm since he had really expressed a desire to return to warmer climes, but we’ll just see what happens. The two of them in my imagination are no longer looking at one another and saying “Eeewwww….” and Garoben has graciously consented to die in this alternate version in order to provide some angst and drama and make room for Keresh to take his place. Wasn’t I just recently trying NOT to make Rayne such a tragic melodrama queen? What happened to that? Huh? Looks like I’ll have to lighten it up a bit elsewhere if I want this to work. And trim a sexy scene between Garoben and Rayne. And their wedding… and… and…

::sigh::

Bloody demanding selfish characters. No wonder I never finish anything.

What to do when characters won’t behave?

2041671260_982e088052So, here’s my dilemma. I’ve got my favorite main character. She’s had some rough times, she’s finally found love, come through all the hardships to the other side, but there’s another man in her life. They are like brother and sister and he is somewhat older than her. But it would make such a great pairing if they ended up together, and make for further adventures maybe in the future. Her love interest is a wonderful man, they love each other deeply and I have already written a series of scenes that could potentially lead to his demise, opening up the way for her and her oldest friend to become a couple. Trouble is, I hate to kill the guy off. I’m going to be offing other characters along the way (mostly unsavory sorts) and she’s had a lot of tragedy in her life as it is. I’m trying to lighten it up a bit and not make her such a melodramatic mess, but still the thought nags at me. Death for the current love interest is the only option for the pairing to happen.

My current plan is just to write alternate scenes of the new reality and see what happens. If it’s terrible then I won’t have wasted any time. I can just set the ideas aside in a folder of their own for later perusal. If nothing else it will give me some writing exercise.

::sigh::

Characters and perceptions of appearance

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I wonder if anyone else does what I do. I often have a character spring, fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’s brow, into my story. But I am a very visual person and it helps me to have a pic that represents that person. My userpic on this post is a picture of Rayne, my FMC in my fantasy story (that is probably going to be multiple volumes if I can ever get anything done.) It actually came from a fanfic I wrote long ago and had posted on the Seven Pillars website. They thoughtfully provided an image to go with the  story and she became Rayne. Often I have an actor or such in mind to fit the physical description and then I find an appropriate picture to go with it. But sometimes I have to hunt. I’ve found a couple of places that have pics of somewhat unknown actors looking for work and I peruse them and that’s how I find the faces of my characters. The first couple of pages of my documents are usually pictures of the characters I’m writing about, including the animals if there are any, because they’re important to the story as well.

Am I weird or does anyone do anything similar?

Getting inside your character’s head

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Now, I’m not claiming to be an expert by any stretch of the imagination; I’m mainly using this blog to catalog ideas I like that I think might help my writing and sharing them in case anyone cares.;-) I’m totally stealing this idea from a thread on the Compuserve Writer’s Forum Research and Craft folder. The idea states : “Show the reader what your character carries around in his/her pockets.” What a cool idea! So, go on, stand your main character(s) in front of a table and empty their pockets. What do we find?

Rayne, as an adult has a few things. A few coins, a bit of withered carrot, some leather string (dunno why, my brain just kept telling me “put some string in there!”), random seeds or leaves she may have picked off plants or bushes she’s passed in her travels, and a smooth stone from the river that flows past her childhood home. She always carries a small knife at her belt, for eating as much as anything. She has always been crap with a weapon, though she insists on still carrying her father’s cavalry saber even though she is barely capable of not injuring herself on it.

Valerie, from my contemporary story, always carries a pocketknife in the right front pocket of her jeans. The left front pocket probably holds a compact digital camera and/or her cell phone. Keys are on a clip on her belt loop and her back pockets may be empty or may hold something she put there temporarily and forgot about, like a comb or her wallet. She’s a bit absent-minded and loses these things on a fairly regular basis, even when they are on her person.

Lily, from my NaNoWriMo werewolf story, tends to carry very little in her pockets. If anything, it might be some   money in case of emergency. The occasional need to Shift form neccesitates that few valuables are kept in pockets. Clothes don’t change with the Lycan and therefore are left behind. Makes for some interesting transformations if the Lycan isn’t back where her clothes were removed. Lily’s already had one close call; let’s see what else we can come up with!