It’s Just Your Imagination

Kate Flora hereScreen Shot 2015-02-21 at 11.28.35 AM deeply immersed in the next Joe Burgess, And Led Them Thus Astray. Since I spend much of the time when I’m not writing my own books editing other writers or teaching writing, I’m always acutely aware of the pitfalls that arise for writers in the course of their storytelling. Among the biggest is letting the reader see the characters and action without slowing the momentum of the story. A common problem is doing a huge data dump to let the reader know all the cool lore that the writer has learned in order to write the story. Another place problems frequently arise is in description.

How often have we seen a writer try to describe a character by writing something along the lines of: She tossed back her streaming raven curls and compressed her glistening full, red lips together as she tried not to smile at his approach?

Kate Flora the editor always makes a little note in the margin: Is this the way a character would see Screen Shot 2015-02-21 at 11.29.15 AMherself in her own inner narrative? Do we talk about our streaming raven curls? Our full, red lips? The camellia pink mounds of our breasts? Probably not. Our job as writers is to let you see it in a way that doesn’t feel forced or unnatural, that feels like it comes authentically from the characters but gives you the details from which your own imaginations can conjure up the picture.

So this morning I was watching Burgess, after getting only two hours sleep, lumbering out to the breakfast table to try and have a civilized breakfast with his family, when his mind wants to leap ahead to a series of horrific attacks on police officers. I’m trying to let you see the kids gathered around the table, Chris at the stove, and a weary, limping Burgess gearing up for another long day.

It made me think of conversations I’ve had over the years about what my characters look like. From time to time, someone has sent me a photo that they think is Joe Burgess or Thea Kozak. Or they ask me who, if I was casting a movie, I would cast as Burgess, or Kyle, or Stan Perry? Who would play Thea Kozak and who would play Andre?

Sean Bean

Sean Bean

It’s a fun exercise to indulge in–both using real people, or real actors. It also reminds me of something I realized when music videos first became popular: that I really don’t want someone else imagining things for me, either in music or in fiction. I want to listen to the song and see it my own way. I want to read the book and see the cast of characters as they seem to me.

And that leads to a funny story. Some years ago, I was leafing through a catalogue and there was a model who looked like I’ve always imagined Thea looks. I tore out the page and left it on my husband’s desk. When he got home, he picked it up, a bit grumpy because he doesn’t like things left on his desk, and said: “What’s this?”

“It’s Thea,” I said.

“No, it’s not. She doesn’t look anything like that.”

So, readers, I’ve included some of the possibilities for Joe Burgess. Is he more like a bulky Brian

Viggo Mortensen

Viggo Mortensen

Dennehy? A Nick Nolte? Or is he more like Viggo Mortensen or Sean Bean? How do you see him? Who would you cast in the movie?

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9 Responses to It’s Just Your Imagination

  1. Heidi Wilson says:

    Alas, I seldom go to movies, so I can’t propose an actor. But I do know that anyone whose breasts are a uniform camellia pink should see a doctor. That goes for guys, too. Did you really find that in a manuscript, or is it just a Stern Example?

  2. I have to confess that I don’t clearly “see” characters when I read. Just a general impression of size or strength if those are relevant. In my own writing, I sometimes have to remind myself to give readers clues to what my protagonists and some of the regulars look like. Only once have I seen a real person and known instantly that was what one of my characters looks like. It was Colin Firth in his villain role in Shakespeare in Love–a dead ringer for Sir Robert Appleton in my Face Down series, my sleuth’s rat of a husband, duly killed off in the 4th book in the series. Usually I end up saying a character looks like a cross between two people. Lady Appleton is a cross between Kathy Bates and Kate Jackson. Sort of. See? I’m really not good at this!

  3. Ha! In my mind, Joe Burgess always has been a dead ringer for Nick Nolte!

  4. Gram says:

    If I have to choose it will be a Brian Dennehy or Tige Andrews type.

  5. MCWriTers says:

    I’d go with Brian Dennehy, too. But, truthfully, I don’t visualize characters in my books or other books — probably that’s odd. But, like Kathy, I have to really work to imagine what they look like. And one of my final editing chores is going back to insert a few descriptions. But not too many. What’s most important, of course, is how characters act and feel. That — I’m right with.

  6. Edith says:

    I’d say Sean Bean or the guy in with the glasses (is that Nick Nolte?).

  7. Bob Bailey says:

    My main character has always been Russell Jones a classmate of mine. He always had chip on shoulder. He bullied me from k thru to the spring of our senior year in school. One night that spring I got a call from him. He asked me go to a movie. I had say no because of my Ma. I was amazed. He had been a secret friend. He was very athletic, memorable, smart and determined. Tom Selleck is my choice but Russ is the one I know best. What would Russ do? Thea is Kate Flora with her killer figure and smarts. Take care

  8. LD Masterson says:

    I never like it when the author describes a character in detail. It’s harder for me to visualize that picture than just let one form in my head as I read.

  9. Lil Gluckstern says:

    I think Nick Nolte would be perfect, but I don’t think he looks as good anymore. I love J As Joe. As for Thea, someone like Diane Lane would be nice. IMHO

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