Have you ever faced the age old issue of ‘what comes first?’
No, not the chicken or the egg … but the book and the film!
Now, obviously, in 99% of cases, the film will be based on a book. But I’m not talking release dates. I’m talking about which came first for YOU! Did you watch the movie Twilight, and then decide to read the books, to then have Edward Cullen forever depicted as Robert Pattinson in your mind? Or did you conjure your own wolves and vampires, only to be disappointed the moment you took your seat in the audience? It’s a particularly pertinent question for the YA world, with books like ‘The Hunger Games‘ and ‘City of Bones’ being made into films, and the actors portraying famous roles being announced months prior to the films, as if to ask ‘did we get it right?’.
As an author, characterisation, and how detailed the physical attributes you give a character can be a difficult tightrope to tread.
Personally, as a reader, I prefer to read the book before I see the film. I LOVE to conjure characters in my mind. To attribute the leading man with unmentioned details which I’m personally attracted, to see aspects of myself in the lead female, if she’s likeable, or perhaps characteristics of people I dislike, in her if she’s not! My mind becomes a playground, the words on the page simply forming the framework for my games. It’s my imagination which fills the gaps, populating a world which has been carefully crafted not just to suck me in, but to keep me there by allowing me to combine my own imagination with the authors.
If only we could take a snapshot into the mind of a reader. A hundred readers. To see what Hermione Granger, or Matilda, or Prince Caspian ever looked like before the characters appeared on the silver screen.
I say snapshot, because my memory is visual. I read a book as a series of pictures, which flash through my mind as my eyes see the words. But not every reader attributes a physical image to a person. He or she might instead associate a smell, or a sound, or even just a sense.
And because of all that … because I know as a reader I like to colour in the lines, rather than be presented with a fully completed paint by numbers, I’ve noticed something in my writing.
I very seldom describe my characters in great detail!
The reason I’ve even touched upon this topic, is that last month I was very lucky to win Elli Writes’ June writing competition, and my prize is a portrait of one of my characters! An amazing prize for an author whose artistic talents at school lay more in sketching still life drawings of apples, than bringing a vivid character to life.
But the prize begged the question – which character should I choose?
I’ve now completed three novels, and have the start of three other novels on the go. That’s seven books worth of characters. Seven books worth of people, who in my mind are as vivid as the day, and yet, who on paper, I have always been reticent to describe in too much detail.
But I’m not a lazy author. I just want to give the reader a sense of the character. A vague physical outline, which hopefully the emotions, and dialogue, and situations will allow the reader to colour with his or her own ideas.
Interestingly, if I squeeze my eyes shut and try to describe the snapshots in my head, I can see figures. I can see scenes, and situations. But the people in those scenes are fixed like mannequins, their faces indistinct. And yet I feel like I know these characters inside out. I mean, after all, I created them. I understand their fears, their passions, their ideas. They are my friends …. My favourite people. Neat combinations of reality and fiction, some of them spliced together from people I know, others simply conjured out of necessity or situation.
And yet, for me, they’re all faceless! As if, as an author this time, rather than a reader, I was hoping the readers themselves would fill in the gaps, and see the face of Ellody Rose, or Felicity Firestone for themselves.
So, how exactly do I choose a character for my prize? How do I tell Liz, the editor of Elli Writes, how to draw a person who for me has no face, just a mass of emotions, decisions, and reactions?
The answer is, I didn’t.
Because in all of my books, it turns out there is always at least one character who has a face! And these characters always tend to be male!!!
No, they’re not my ideal men, or physical embodiments of my ex boyfriends! And no, they’re not film stars, or pin-ups … (Though it is sometimes quite a cool game to play, coming up with who would play your lead men in the movie of your book!)
No, interestingly, the characters who I have the most clear visual impressions of, are the ones who are the most guarded. The ones who share little with the reader, and likewise with me. The ones I don’t understand, or don’t want to understand. The two-timing lady player. The emo/punk misunderstood Dream Navigator, who spends his days lashing out at those around him ….
But what I will tell you, is that I’ve made a decision who I would love Liz to draw for me …
In The Dream Navigator there’s a character called Raye. He’s dark, and perplexing, and only begins to open up towards the very end of the book. But from Day One, I had the most vivid image of him. A Korean Adam Lambert. His hair blue black, his nails painted with black varnish, and his eyes ringed with kohl.
He fascinates me, because I don’t know or understand him, and so writing about him proved both frustrating, and really exciting. In my head, he was the most visually distinct, and yet the hardest for me to understand!
And so now I will be handing over the gauntlet to Elli Writes 🙂 Will she understand him any better than me? Will she be able to turn my words into a picture, and see the same boy I see in my mind every time I flick through my manuscript?
Or will she be waiting for the movie (God I really hope some day I write a movie!!!!), to see the actor who gets cast as Raye?
What do you see when you read a book? Is it different when you’re writing? Do your characters resemble real life people? Do you prefer to watch a film before you read the book? Or would you rather have your own character in your mind, and then shun the director’s presentation of that person?
As ever, please let me know what you think, either in the comments box below, or on Twitter.