I was sketching an artist friend of mine. I glanced at her a few times and drew her; or what I thought was her.
She took one look at the picture and said, ‘it’s very nice, but you’re not drawing with your eyes, you’re drawing with your mind.’
By Cherie Lee
She went on to say that sketching is a skill of observation, not imagination. By the end of a still life class she’s physically exhausted from the amount of concentration it takes to really look at an object or person and copy the details onto the page. Rather than really looking at my friend, I was simply taking mental note of key features (long hair, small nose) and reconstructing my idea of long hair and small nose without referring back to her long hair and small nose.
Write from observation rather than memory
‘You might draw a bottle, everyone knows what a bottle looks like, you can draw one from memory. But what does this bottle look like? This bottle has these markings, is this brand, has those scuff marks. You really have to look and look and look.’
I took up sketching to improve my focus but it’s given me a great insight into writing. The goal in any writing form is always truth, even if you’re fabricating characters and stories. If there isn’t a ring of truth, the audience will disengage.
But how do you know what truth looks like unless you observe a wide range of humans in varying conditions and circumstances? We don’t remember great storylines in movies; we remember great characters that were engaged in those storylines.
We don’t remember great storylines in movies;
we remember great characters that were
engaged in those storylines.
You, writer, needs to get out!
I’ve always struggled with the paradox of my personality and my passion. I’m an extrovert, without a doubt, but I have to write. Which means sitting in a room. Alone. For long periods of time. Not exactly idyllic circumstances for one who thrives on human interaction. In fact, it can sometimes induce an unhealthy mental state (read: crazy). But perhaps this contradiction isn’t really a contradiction at all. One feeds the other.
I realised recently that my best writing occurs when I’m deeply engaged with the world around me, soaking up stimuli as much as possible so when I sit down to write, all the interactions inspired by people and events flow into my words. Rather than living day-to-day life inside my head thinking about what I want to write, my eyes and ears are open, present in every moment.
There has to be an element of engagement with the living world
or no one in the living world will relate to your work.
This is not to assume that it will work for everyone. Some of the greatest writers in history were socially awkward misfits, perhaps your personality thrives on being alone and your writing feeds your social interactions rather than visa versa. But there has to be an element of engagement with the living world or no one in the living world will relate to your work.
Reality: stranger than (your) fiction
When it comes to creating characters, my imagination has nothing on reality. I think of the Simpsons episode where Bart, banned from watching Itchy and Scratchy, claims that he doesn’t need them because his imagination is just as interesting. We see inside Bart’s head, the cartoon cat and mouse are sitting there, shrugging their shoulders, whistling awkwardly. I love this because as much as we would like to think our imagination is endless, it needs to be fed. Either by the world around us or other art forms; ideas from people’s imaginations.
As much as we would like to think our imagination is endless,
it needs to be fed.
So I changed the way I write. Rather than thinking ‘what kind of character do I want to create?’ I think about all the people I know or have recently met and write about the interesting aspects of their personalities to see if anything develops. This taps into deep motivations as well because I want to do justice to the people that inspire me (whether positively or negatively).
I want to faithfully copy down what I see and hear so that there’s a reality to my characters, even if they’re in imagined situations, to honour the unique emotional make-up of a living, breathing human being; the thing that distinguishes us from each other, the sense of being an individual.
Universality vs. uniqueness
Of course, it could be argued, there are universal emotions, experienced by all. This is why we flock to the cinema to watch stories of underlying passions and frustrations we all experience in varying degrees in a lifetime. But it’s the nuances of each of these and the unique way every person experiences them that I’m interested in. This is what enables the writer to create believable characters.
Take angry. You’re creating a character that’s angry. The word triggers certain images: red face, yelling, tense body, glaring, perhaps even lashing out. But that’s the angry you see in a Disney movie when the bad guy loses. What does angry really look like on different people who come with their own experiences, history, world-views, social backgrounds and values? What about a person who’s passive aggressive, with a long-term anger bubbling under the surface, how do you write that?
What does angry really look like?
Only by studying someone that fits the bill can you start to build a realistic pattern of speech, believable expressions and actions; an anger so specific to one person that they’re the only person in the world who could experience anger in this way. Or take grief: a distraught person weeping into the skies. Oh the injustice of it all! WHY!? Again, an idea of grief more at home in Disney or bad Hollywood films. But where can you actually view grief? Who do you know that’s grieving and how do they express it?
It’s only when you start to really look and look and look at the people around you that you can create believable characters and avoid stereotypes.