Thursday, March 25, 2010

En-hear-ening characters

Envisioning my characters--is there an equivalent, like “en-hear-ening” them? I think I am at least as audio as visual. In imagining my characters in YA/adult, I have them quite physically defined in my mind, and I very often picture actors in my head or even people from works of art if I am actively writing that particular story. If I am just jotting down ideas or writing paragraphs of an outline for a story, I’m focused on theme and plot and have only the vaguest ideas about what characters look like. It would be unusual for an image of a person to come so clearly to me that I build a whole story around that image. For me, their personalities are stronger than appearance. I start out with my ideas of the personality and as I write or scenes come into my head, their personalities grow and choices they make change from what I had originally imagined. I am one of those people whose characters do speak to them--whole scenes of dialogue. So I have a good idea of what they would say, how they would say it, motivation, and how it propels the story forward.

Since I listen to a lot of music, many of my characters become characters in songs relevant to the story, or songs remind me of certain characters, which helps me be more specific in their personalities and motivations. Even if it’s never mentioned in the narrative, I would know what kinds of music they liked. That can be really fun if you have a creature who has lived longer than a normal human lifetime--tv and movies and internet have not always been around, books were not always widely available to everyone, but music has always been accessible and create-able.

News events also influence my characters--stories that come up, elections won and lost, medical advances, scientific discoveries--would these impact my characters? How would they feel about them? Sometimes a discovery is made about a historical event from centuries past--that may become something that one of my characters actually lived through. Last week, sadly, singer/songwriter/musician Alex Chilton suddenly passed away. My young protagonist would have no idea who that is, but perhaps her older (obviously cool) relative or her vampire friend who has been around “a while” would react to that.

Picture book characters are different for me. I picture animal characters more vividly than I do if the characters are people. I usually do not have strong visuals in my head of my child protagonists. My imagination focuses much more on their personalities, and I like them to be feisty! There is one story, about Mother’s Day and a little boy named Noodles, in which I couldn’t help picturing my own son as I was writing it. I think I was having a really difficult time coming up with something to write at that time, so thinking about him and that topic helped me persevere. But most of the time I am more inclined to picture the settings and action around my characters than their personal appearances. I have only vague images of what my vampire or witch families look like--whimsical, a couple people are only slightly foreboding--and more defined ideas about the drafty old cobwebb-y castle. When Marisol moves, the text is used to describe her new room, new house, new school, new playground. In my mind, the physical appearance of Marisol and her family members is quite fluid. If the stories were ever illustrated, it should be a pleasant surprise to me to see what the PB characters actually look like!

“Children by the million wait for Alex Chilton when he comes ‘round. They say ‘I’m in love. What’s that song?’”--the Replacements, off Pleased to Meet Me, 1987


  1. I tend to be the same way--personality and action first, appearance second. Perhaps that is good. Then we won't be disappointed if any Fluffy Kitties come our way.

  2. I'm also curious to see how an illustrator would interpret my words. I wish I could draw.

  3. Animals are just more fun to picture than people! I love how you connect music to it all. Such a great explanation of an abstract concept. So cool.