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.

Writing and first drafts: or What I’ve Learned This Semester In College

So, I’ve been taking an advanced creative writing class. I’ve had such classes before and they are loads of fun, as long as you aren’t afraid to let anyone else read your work. I got over that a long time ago. All our assignments have been 2-3 pages, some with some guiding theme. We were directed to write one story as our exact opposite type, personality, upbringing, whatever made that person different from ourselves. Another time it was a condensed life, packing a character’s life into those few pages. Such short assignments is meant to teach us to shape our prose, to weave a compelling story structure and do it in the space allotted. That and the short pieces mean we get to cover several per class, otherwise we’d never get anything done.

I’m amazed and in awe of the talent among my classmates. All of them have demonstrated humor, drama and deft skill in shaping words and phrases to tell a story. And Jill, our instructor, is amazing. She can cut right to the heart of what a story could use to make it even better and also tries to coax from the readers what it is they are finding in the story that needs helps, all of which is fantastic in helping me as a writer hone my skills.

Jill gave us an excellent analogy for writing. All of our pieces we have presented are first drafts. She likens writers to anthropologists and biologists, specifically Jane Goodall. Our characters are like those chimpanzees and we are the observer. We don’t know why Bucky just smacked Bubba upside the head, nor do we understand why Delilah broke up the fight. We just watch what they’re doing and write it all down. That’s the first draft. The second draft and those subsequent are when we writers/anthropologists go back to our tent in the jungle with our notes and start rereading them and figuring out what the motives behind the actions are.  We sit under our mosquito netting and revise what we know about our characters based on everything we have observed. So, it becomes apparent that Bucky was retaliating for Bubba stealing his nesting spot and Delilah, as their mother, felt it necessary to stop the fight before it got out of control, Or whatever it is your characters are doing.

So, I’m off to the jungle, to follow some chimpanzees and take some notes.

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.


Characters and perceptions of appearance


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?

Wait for it…

I’ve almost broken 30,000 words!

One thing I’ve discovered about myself doing this NaNo… I CANNOT stop editing. I make myself write, this is true, but I have to go back and read. I always find new little details I can add, entire scenes, events, because of the chaotic way I write. I don’t reacll if I’ve mentioned this before, but I write in scenes. The characters tell me things all out of order and I just have to go with it. If I don’t and I try to write things in chronological order then I forget the later scenes before I get to them. And by that time the characters have clammed up on me. 

So, in the interest of listening to my characters in a timely manner, I’m off to do a bit more writing before bed. Damn the neccessity of a full-time job. It’s really cutting into my writing time.