Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Playing the Part: Reading the Right Stories Helps Create Characters

Portrait of an artist
It's been said, including here by authors like Peter Selgin (see "Essential Conversations on Creativity: Style With Peter Selgin"), that good reading makes good writing. It's also true that your characters are only as good as what you've read to prepare for writing them.

Like a method actor preparing to play a part, reading to portray a character is key, as I'm learning even more in the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing Program at Fairfield University under mentor Pete Nelson, author of I Thought You Were Dead. Nelson's reading suggestion for an artist character I'm creating was Joyce Cary's The Horse's Mouth.

Cary's The Horse's Mouth
I like this selection because the book is older, not well-known, to me anyway, and the writing is superb. Yet, not even these qualities are enough. Horse's Mouth portrays artist Gulley Jimson from the inside out.

Here's just some of what I learned:
  • Cary uses partial descriptions in scenes to show how an artist might see them.
  • His dialogue is clipped, as an artist may hear people speak because he's looking at other things. It's also compressed, as if the artist wants to finish the conversation and get back to work.
  • When an artist first becomes aware of his surroundings, he interprets it roughly, as a sketch.
  • Past relationships are precious, because artists often move through their days without lasting intimacy: It's all about the work.
  • Artists create their work from bits of life, sense memories. Good artists are brutally honest.
  • I also appreciated that this book is a novel, not nonfiction, which means the story has a more organic feel, which guards against the wooden result that can come from too much research. Now, to put all this into practice.
Tip: What main character are you creating who could benefit from a good story about the same type of person? Visit your local library, LinkedIn or writing group, and ask who's read a lesser-known work that pertains to the same character type. As you read, record what you learn.