DESCRIBING CHARACTERS AND SCENES: A WRITER’S CHEAT-SHEET
“Mickie, do you remember the colour of Biggs’s eyes? Did I mention it anywhere?”
There is a long silence on the other end of the phone. I’ve called my sister long distance again, to jog her memory once more, because my own recall was too full of new plot details to remember the old ones.
“I don’t think so,” she said.
I winced. Neither of us ‘thought’ so but what if I had? And what if a fan remembered and -- Oh my God, challenged me during a panel as to why I’d muffed the detail. There I’d be, sitting beside authors who I respected, hoping that they’d glance at me and think, “That Leigh Evans wrote an good book -- she belongs here.” And then the fan with the amazing eye for detail would say, “How come Biggs’ eyes changed colour? Is there something behind that?” Which is when I’d get that deer-in-the-headlight look and I’d start stammering because that’s what I do when my brain is doing circles like a yelping dog. Damn.
I resist the urge to thud my head against the kitchen counter. Remember, remember -- what are the colour of his eyes? Sounds drift through the receiver. Mickie was busy making morning coffee. This perked me up, as it indicated that she was going to give it a think.
“They’re brown, aren’t they?” she said, after she’d given her coffee a quick stir.
“Well, I think they are but what if—“
“Go look at your inspiration book,” she said.
So simple. Just go my book of dreams... It’s an irony, isn’t it? A lot of us word spinners use pictures as short cuts to our memory. Why? Because few people -- other than that fan with the detail superpower or maybe George R. R. Martin -- can freeze an image in their head for perpetuity.
Let me explain how I fell into the habit of collecting picture references. An important element in the mystwalker series is a portal that connects the Fae realm to this one. The imagery for that originally came from my ‘muse’ (or so I thought). But I’ll be honest: description doesn’t come easily to me. It took a bit of effort to find the right words to paint the picture for my readers -- hours spent that I didn’t initially rue. But by the third portal scene, I was growing frustrated. I had to hold the image in my mind, describe it with different words, and still hang onto the action that was driving the scene. Oh, the agony.
Cut to the day I was brushing my teeth. Mouth full of suds, I realized that my water glass had mysteriously disappeared. I bent sideways to scoop up some water. And there it was -- water running from the faucet, looking a great deal like the mid-section of my passageway. Except in reverse. I have a very lazy muse.
But that, dear readers, was the birth of my inspiration book. I went to the computer, found some images of running water, clouds, atom bombs, and sunlight, pasted them together -- et voila -- the portal to Merenwyn. Now, it takes far less time to describe the passage to the land of the Fae. Particularly if I use the thesaurus. (First rule of thesaurus: you do not talk about thesaurus). I couldn’t believe I’d been so dim. Why hadn’t I thought of this earlier?
Clearly, I was the evil genius of short cuts. A forerunner of my generation who’d brilliantly used google, sellotape and scissors to make her writing process crisper, cleaner and -- thank you, thank you -- faster. I lived with that belief until I was reading a book wherein the character was described so well that I recognized him for who he was: Vin Diesel. Quite put me off.
Yes, I’d been hitting the image query box on the sly; typing in ‘blue eyes’ or ‘man’s thigh.’ But this writer had cut to the chase -- forgoing my choice of composite profile-building in favour of using a real actor as a mental placeholder. I couldn’t help wondering. Just how many authors did that? Answer: about 50% of them. Damn, I’m a laggard.
So there you go: writers frequently use real people as the visual basis for their characters. Once you know that, you’re going to find yourself searching for the clues. Let’s see...tall, blond, big muscles, piecing deep set blue eyes, wavy hair...ah hah! Chris Helmsworth!
This is a game of infinite speculation and fun. Ask yourself how many times was Tom Cruise captured in print during the 90s? Now take it backwards. How about Errol Flynn? Rudy Vallee? Doesn’t it make you wonder who was the visual placeholder for Horatio Hornblower? Good heavens. Who was the original Frodo? Now ask yourself this -- do you really want to know? Have any of you had a Vin Diesel moment?
Ever so often a female fan will ask me what Robson Trowbridge looks like. I think of my inspiration book and off all those cut-up pictures. Abs from this model, blue eyes from this actor, hair from this singer. He’s real to me though his face blurs when I try to recall it, much like remembering someone you once loved but haven’t seen in a long, long time.
I don’t know if I’ll ever think up characters like Hedi Peacock and Robson Trowbridge again. And since I’m demonstrably lazy, I can report that I have since taken to cheating terribly, and now use placeholders for secondary characters.
But those two? Never. In my heart, they’re real.
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The Thing About Wolves is the second novel in Leigh Evans’ fabulous Mystwalkers series, published this month. You can read more about the plot and see some amazing praise for her debut, The Trouble with Fate, here. See more posts about and by Leigh Evans on our blog here