12 November 2013

The Continuous Dream

Creating vivid characters and believable settings is a complex process--or rather, it's at least two processes, since character and setting aren't the same thing.  But the these processes have something in common, and that something is the vivid dream. 
When I speak to writing students about creating vivid characters, I suggest that they start with a detailed visual picture that they then relate selectively, picking the two or three or half a dozen details that will make a character a unique individual for the reader.  The same thing goes for the setting in which their characters move and argue and strike each other with beer bottles.

Quiet Please.  Writer Visualizing.
All of which assumes that the author can see the character and setting and see them as clearly as a recent memory or a particularly vivid dream.  In the case of character, you can work from life, using your third-grade teacher or a man you saw on the bus this morning, or you can pick someone out of an ad or an old movie.  For settings, you can travel your neighborhood or the globe or pore over the writings of someone who has traveled.  Or, yes, you can make up either a character or a setting out of whole cloth.  However you start, at some point you have to see that character and that setting.  Really see them.  Your setting has to be a real place in your mind's eye and your characters real people.  (You'll also hear them and smell them and touch them, if you're writing from all your senses, but, for me, seeing comes first.)

When I write, I'm watching a movie in my head, seeing characters in the setting.  As they move about, I see what elements to mention, like the heroine's hair being pushed away from her face and falling right back again or the moving shadows from the tree above the patio table at which the murderer sits. 

Grant, Gibson, and Saint
And visualization isn't only important for descriptions.  It also helps me avoid "continuity errors," which is a movie term for little mistakes that pop up in a scene when multiple takes are edited together.  Like the Gibson cocktail that appears and disappears in front of Cary Grant while he's talking with Eva Marie Saint in the club car in North By Northwest.   These things can happen in our writing, too, when we're not visualizing the actions we're describing.  A student once gave me a chapter in which a man yanks a derby down to his eyebrows in a show of determination.  So far so good, but a line or two later, the same character slaps his forehead in surprise.  Try slapping your forehead after you've yanked your derby down.  The author had gotten caught up in the dialogue of the scene (which was, incidentally, very good) and stopped visualizing.

Am I claiming that my mental movie is identical in every respect to the one playing inside the reader's head when he or she reads my finished story?  No.  That would take more detail than even a Gustave Flaubert could cram into a scene.  Or else a kind of magic.  And yet there is a sort of alchemy at work when the reader completes the circuit and reconstitutes the freeze dried images we put on the page.  (The preceding sentence has been submitted for a mixed-metaphor award.)  I believe that if my settings are real places for me and my characters real people, my readers will pick up on it.  They'll meet me halfway, plugging in the missing details from their own experience or imagination. 

And my dream will live on independent of me.  Which is something worth seeing.  



  1. Tamar Myers and a few others I know sketch their characters and post them on bulletin boards near their computers. Since anyone I sketched would look like a cartoon character, I've never tried that, but I have occasionally seen one of my characters in a catalog and cut the photo out for my bulletin board.
    My most recent Gimlet occasion was to move a character out of a chair to give an elderly lady a seat, then have the character right back in that chair a page later.

  2. Fran,

    You must be an early riser like me. In the old movies I love, hats and cigarettes, which are ubiquitous, are common sources of continuity errors. I saw one just this week, Assault on a Queen, in which Richard Conte throws away the same cigarette butt twice. These same sources can cause errors in fiction, as my derby story attests.

  3. For me, what makes a character vivid has nothing to do with appearance or props. It's dialogue, and more broadly, voice. When new characters come to me, they usually enter (my mind, not necessarily the scene) talking.

  4. What I find intriguing about readers' mental images of what they read is how often they agree. Whether or not their common visualizations match the one the author had in mind, they are quite often strikingly similar to each other. All you have to do to encounter this phenomenon is engage in discussion about whether such-and-such a casting choice for the movie adaptation of a book "really fits" a particular character. It's always amazed me that people will usually respond by pointing to the same characteristics and senses of the character as essential. But at the same time, if an actor who doesn't look "right" manages to convey the mannerisms and personality (including voice) of the character well enough, then the viewers will accept them anyway and attribute it to the actor "doing a good job of being so-and-so". Don't know where this goes, but it has always suggested to me that the image the writer writes from does get translated to the reader's mind -- more than we might expect.

  5. Your derby story made me chuckle, because I've been guilty of the same error. My characters often wear hats and smoke, so I've now grown used to doing a special "cigar-lit/cigar-out/cigar-in-hand/cigar-in-ashtray/hat-on/hat-off" edit, just for that reason. LOL

    I mark-up my ms with red lines and the words "Hat on" or "Lit Cigar" -- things like that. Then I draw another red line with words such as "Hat on hat rack" or "Cigar cold out, stump in hand". It gets a little crazy, but looking at the stage business between the red lines is the only way I've found to keep from leaving half-smoked cigars and old hats lying around the story everywhere. LOL

  6. Not sure who gave me the idea of doing that red line business, incidentally, but it might have been on an SS post.


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