Sunday, December 12, 2010

Discovering Characters or Cutting Out Pictures 101

Every writer has his or her own method of finding the characters who will inhabit their books. For the most part, these characters are creations of our imaginations, but imaginations often need sparks and these sparks can come from anything--someone we know, a dream, a character in a movie or television program, a stranger we stand behind in the Starbucks line, even ourselves.

One of the best ways I've found to discover my characters is to flip through magazines and employ a skill I mastered in kindergarten--the art of cutting out pictures. Sometimes I have a character in mind and I look for a picture that's a good representation. I find having the pictures by my laptop when I write can be incredibly helpful. Sometimes I'm not sure who the character is and I flip through pictures until I find him or her.

Now, I want to clarify--I'm not looking for an exact representation. Sometimes the character in my head will look exactly like the one in the picture, but far more often, it's a look in the eye or an expression that is similar. Something beyond the surface description.

I can't entirely explain how this works, but when I see the right picture, I know it. Often, I've thought I understood who a character was until I found her picture and through it discovered an entirely new depth to her personality. The right picture speaks to me, the person in it leaping off the page, ready to tell me his or her story. Yes, I know it's crazy , but no one ever said there was anything normal about a writer's brain (especially a fiction writer's brain).

Scattered throughout this article are pictures that have inspired some of my characters. Some are pictures that simply call to me. Yes, most of these are of movie stars we all know too well, but again, it's not about the person. It's about the look. There's a vulnerability in Jennifer Garner's picture, a toughness in Natalie Portman's, an easy confidence in Reese Witherspoon's that each inspire a different character. The guys...well, they tend to inspire me in an entirely different way. But when I look at them, I don't see Clive or Hugh or Josh. I see emotions, personalities. Stories.

In magazine cut-outs I often find the windows to my characters' souls.


Me said...

I do exactly the same thing, Pam! About 20-30 pages into a book I get stuck and have to stop and make a collage. Sometimes it's ridiculous (like Shakira as my pale, teenage mermaid) but it helps. And can I just say ... Clive Owen. Yum.

Helen Lowe said...

Isn't it intriguing how we all have different processes--I always totally 'see them in my head' and it's only a long time afterward that I think "could definitely be played by Johnny Depp", or "Russell Crowe", or "Anna Paquin" ... :)

Mary Curry said...

Thanks, Pam. I often find myself searching for my character in catalogues but finding a match seems elusive. I think I'll try your idea of searching for a specific characteristic or expression rather than the whole.

Jaime Rush said...

I'm with you, Pam. Sometimes I see them clearly, and other times, not so much. And it's totally that spark in their eyes or expression, and looking at them while I'm writing the scene helps a lot!

Unknown said...

I've been known to keep file folders on my laptop labeled "redheads" or "preteens", "Brooding alphas" "best mates" etc. so when a new character pops up, I have a library to inspire me. Anytime I see someone particularly interesting, into a file they go!