I’m a visual type of person. I grew up watching lots of TV in addition to reading a lot. With TV or movies, you can see the character’s emotion (or the lack thereof if the actors aren’t good) as well as the world the story is set in. You can see the clothing, the objects they use in their lives, what they eat, in general how the characters live. As a result, when I read everything runs through my head like a movie.
Because I can visualize in my head what I’m reading, I think it should be easy for me to be able to write that way. But I can’t. I struggle mightily with what people, places, and certain objects look like. Sometimes it drives me so nuts I can’t possibly concentrate on the actual story. For the longest time if I couldn’t wrap my head around whatever it or who looked like, I was more inclined to abandon the story for something else.
I’ve tried a few different techniques to help me. The first thing I tried was creating a computer file I named Face Book. No, not the kind just about everyone and their mother is on. Or to be confused with Mitt Romney’s ‘Binder of Women.’ I divided the file folder by gender, hair color, age, ethnic background, etc. I used to type searches into a search engine, comb through pictures, and save the pictures of people who looked intriguing. The idea was to be able to look through the folder quickly for a visual of a character I had in my head. However, as I searched the internet for pictures of random people, the idea freaked me out so I stopped.
Yet I still struggle visualizing the people and world many of my stories are set in. My next idea was to once again turn to search engines for pictures to inspire me. I think doing it this way helped me better because of the additional creativity it sparked. I also realized for short stories that I’m not nearly as worried about going into full detail since I’ve got a finite amount of words to work with. But as I transitioned to writing my first novel, this approach became problematic and was part of the process of figuring out what works best for me.
It’s not just people I have problems seeing; its settings and clothing, too. These things are important as setting define how a character interacts within their world and with each other and clothing tells a lot about a person. Perhaps these things are more important then what the characters even look like. For example, say you have a set of identical twins. One is wearing dirty linen clothes, her shoes are falling apart, and her brown hair is a mess. The other twin is dressed in fine silk, brocade shoes, and her hair is done up in curls. From such a simple description, a reader can tell a lot about these two women.
At first I thought before I started writing the story, I had to have every physical thing down. I fretted that I needed to know about the flora, fauna, what the terrain is like, every mountain range, every landmark before I could even start the story. Same concerns regarding clothing. I had to absolutely dress my characters at all stages of their planned journey ahead of time.
I now know this is flawed thinking at least for me. Ultimately it is the story that is most important to get down first. Yes what everyone looks like, wears, and their world are crucial but those things can be fleshed out after the initial draft. It goes back to my theory the rough draft is a skeleton draft with subsequent drafts consisting of putting the muscles, tendons, veins, and skin on to create a fully developed story.
Is it important to have at least some vague idea of what I’m dealing with before starting the story? Yes. Doing some preliminary research is a great idea as it not only gives context but can inspire the story further. A new character may present itself. A new plot forms (as if I need help in that department) simply because of a photo. Now to keep working on taking the movie in my head and transferring it to paper.