What Authors Can Learn from Artists: Teaching Yourself to See
Before a certain age, kids draw what they actually see—or so an artist told me. It might be unpracticed, but it’s honest. Then, at some point, they internalize a library of symbols for everything. A “nose” looks like this. “Sorrow” looks like that. Grass is just green. So, instead of drawing what they actually see, they just register a nose and draw their default nose symbol. Artists, I’m told, go to great extents to unlearn this “unseeing” and to teach themselves to actually see again.
Does that resonate? It should! Because authors run into the exact same problems. Only when abused, our symbols become clichés, tropes, and stereotypes that taint our characters, plot points, and even our poor, defenseless landscapes. Now, don’t get me wrong: I love a good symbol. Like the soundtrack of a movie, they are effective, almost invisible ways to enhance the emotion and resonance of your story. When used well, they can bring you to the brink with a handful of words. And they are so powerful, that people internalize and then use the symbols they consume without even thinking about it. But therein lies the problem.
Symbols are fantastic—when we think about them. Of course, we don’t always think about them. Like artists, we often practice by mimicking the work of those we admire—without understanding the whys behind the lines we’re drawing. This can lead to misunderstandings of anatomy, such as nostril-punctuated lips. Eventually, with enough practice, we internalize these imperfectly copied symbols and pull them out of context to use in our own writing--without ever noticing the tragic consequences of said misplaced nostrils. Understandably, such a piece, no matter how original, will read a bit off and weirdly self-caricaturized.
If you want your characters to truly live and breathe, it’s important to take the time to study the anatomy of the realities you are writing about—to learn to really “see” as artists do. But how can we, as authors, work on these all-important “seeing” skills? How can we make sure we’re actually writing about the world as we see it, and not as it has been fed to us?
Learn to Listen
The most important thing any author can do is learn to listen. Listening helps authors develop an ear for dialogue—the way different individuals talk. Try not to make assumptions, when listening, or to group people into categories, but rather collect individual voices like characters in your head. You can even practice writing like the different voices you’ve collected at home—or mine your own voice, by looking at old diaries and listening to recordings of your voice as a kid.
When it comes to finding your characters’ voices, it likely won’t be one straight out of your now bursting library. But your exposure to so many voices, informed by the contexts of the individuals to whom those voices belong, will allow you to stitch together a new voice—one that fits your characters’ experiences and resonates with readers perfectly.
Work on Watching
And I do mean work! This isn’t a passive thing, but rather a good exercise for all writers, no matter how experienced. To practice watching, try taking a journal outside and sitting in a garden. Or in a coffee shop. Or in a zoo. And describe what you see. Start small, with the way the wind moves one plant’s petals—what it makes you think of and what words you would apply to it. Then, like Kvothe in The Name of the Wind, come up with the words for leaf-falling-slowly—but don’t stop there. Describe people, the way they move and interact, and what they look like when they smile.
And remember not to lean on “short-hand” symbols! They may be an easy way to trigger your mind as to what you meant, saving you words, but the whole point here is to escape that and to write what you’re actually seeing. To develop your own way of describing the world. Slowly, you will build a collection of descriptions that allow you to cobble together evocative characters filled with personality--with histories and goals of their own—and the vivid world in which they live.
Search Your Feelings
Be like Luke –search your feelings! For real, though: try keeping a journal, and searching your feelings for useful stuff. Not only is it one of the best ways to improve your writing on a consistent basis, it also helps get you comfortable with using a wide vocabulary to describe your emotions--while improving the realism and range of your characters’ reactions at the same time. The more in touch you are with your own emotions and reactions, the less of a chance there is of you misrepresenting a character’s reaction—or worse, forgetting to have your character react at all.
Of course, your use of these emotions does not have to be limited to whatever caused them originally. Using empathy, you can apply, combine, and augment your emotional reactions from a variety of real-life stimuli to portray the emotions of, say, a knight who has just lost her horse. When a character’s reactions come from your studies of real life, it allows you to give your characters a far more honest and resonant reaction than would come from merely copying society’s symbols for “sad.” And of course, the stronger and more practiced your skills of empathy, and the deeper your understanding of humanity, the farther from reality you can stray.
Seek Out New Experiences
Of course, it goes without saying that the more experiences you have, the wider the breadth of your writing. Do you want to write about someone who rides a horse a lot? If at all possible, find a horse you can watch or hang out with. Get used to the smells, movements, and sounds of horses. If you can afford it, take a lesson or two. Worst case scenario, when there are no horses anywhere to be found, research them. Read about them and talk to people who ride horses, finding out how they got started, what they love about it, what it’s like, and if they have any cool stories. In fact, you should consider trying that last one regardless!
Use All of the Above
Say your hero has a lady he likes. And you want the audience to think she’s awesome. So you use the symbol “beautiful” because beauty represents status for women in our society. Then, you make her the only woman, so that the symbol of scarcity will make her more valuable to the reader—after all, there’s no competition. Then, you make her the “healer” for the hero—the only one who can inspire him to do great things. But you neglect to give her any goals—either goals for self-development or goals in terms of great things she’d like to achieve. And you neglect to give her an interesting, storied back ground—or explore the reasons for her nannylike nature. And then you kill her off off-screen in order to give the hero a reason to be angry. It all just adds up to one thing: I’m sorry to have to inform you hero, but that wasn’t a lady. It was a bucket load of symbols. And she won’t prove as powerful as you’d hoped, because she’s not remotely real.
Instead of copying society’s symbols for a valuable woman and then sacrificing her in a society-symbol-approved manner of justifying a cause, use your skills at listening, watching, and feeling—and all the experiences you’ve had—to craft a full, complete person. With goals for herself and things she wants to accomplish. With buttons you can push to make her mad, and a real self with desires and flaws and quirks built out of a bucket load of back story. Give us a reason the hero is attracted to her other than her status—it will make the relationships stronger and any future loss more powerful. And if she must die, make her death a natural conclusion to her arc as well as a step in his arc.
Real characters are really interesting. I mean, of course, they’re reality plus—but they come from you, not from things you’ve copied. You have it in you to write characters people can’t look away from, characters readers will dream about and cosplay as and write letters to. It just takes a little practice.
So go out and explore, keeping your journal and your pen close. Apply your listening, watching, and feeling skills to your every adventure. You never know what will come in handy—or even prove inspiring.