Tailoring a Photograph

You cannot create distinctive characters without assigning them unique attributes. Such qualities also need to stand apart from archetypes of a particular type of personality, such as a gumshoe or a ballerina. You cannot redo Sam Spade, for instance. If you have already formed some ideas about the type of character that moves you, a photograph can help greatly in discovering particular traits. 

Let’s say you pick out a photo from a college graduation. Behind your smiling daughter another figure strikes your eye. It is a middle-aged mother bearing a proud smile for her own child. She is dressed casually, much as you imagine the mother of your heroine dresses. Yet focus in that smile. What does that convey about her background? Is that college the summation of her first-generation immigrant dreams, just to cite one extreme, or was she disappointed her daughter did not get into Harvard? 

You open your file on character sketches and add your provisional answer under “Jane’s mother.” Based on your answer, you can fill out her expectation for her daughter to encompass the mother’s own educational background, her parents’ expectations for her, her situation while growing up, and how marrying your heroine’s father changed the course of her youthful expectations. Merely answering this obvious list of questions will fill out hopefully a page of writing. 

Now you can return to the previous question: how is your protagonist unique? What in your background information on her mother makes her stand out from, say, the immigrant pack? Are her parents Lebanese, for instance? Describing that culture would introduce all sorts of unique facts for most readers. Even if the parents are British, where in that green and pleasant land did they live? Why did they immigrate, and what lessons have they imparted that have made a lasting impact on their daughter?  

The photograph can be both a starting point and a point of reference as you keep checking back with it for further ideas. That’s the beauty of using a visual medium, where so many shades of meaning are implicit in the cast of a person’s lips. You can use the shades that inspire you to create written qualities.

Exercise: You can also use multiple photographs of the same person at the same event to expand your explorations. How does your spouse smile when paired with your daughter? With your daughter and her boyfriend? With your daughter and a group of her wild and crazy friends? What do those shades of difference indicate about your chosen subject’s relationships within the family?

“Only in men’s imagination does every truth find an effective and undeniable existence. Imagination, not invention, is the supreme master of art as of life.”      —Joseph Conrad

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine

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