Monday, 1 October 2012

FINDING FACES by Penny Dolan

Earlier this week, I went to see a musical concert.

I wasn’t wildly keen to go. In fact, for several days before I’d been doing that kind of inner writer grumble about how I needed to be working – though I wasn’t - on the currently struggling tome and how what I needed time and space and peace and quiet and . . . .  You know the sort of thing, I’m sure. It was a mild internal strop that might have appeared as a huff and glower every hour or so.

However, I went, and two things happened. The concert was actually enjoyable, enthusiastic and funny. And - which is why I am not going to tell you the name of the band - I found just the face I’d needed for ages.  (The one below isn't it!)

Please don’t start thinking about truly gross tv makeovers or transplants. The face wasn’t for me personally. I needed it for a significant character in the above-mentioned tome.

 I had searched around for images on the web. So often the faces offered there are not quite right, or too full of an established or celebrity persona to be truly useable. For example, even if one chose Johnny Depp in his quiet and thoughtful J.M. Barrie mode, I am sure that Captain Jack would come swashbuckling into the writing before very long.

There were difficulties about the look I required. The face (and head) needed to have a certain lean, bony elegance but also be capable of being disguised for more than a midnight moment. So there’d be trouble if I’d added a prominent purple nose, or shock of bright ginger hair, or flashing emerald eyes or a crooked scar running from forehead to chin, or worse, all four, even if I was writing him like that. (I wasn’t!)

But now I’m feeling peaceful. I’ve seen The Face. It’s a good, malleable sort of face and I’ve seen the build and the movement of the body that goes with it. The face I saw is strong and thoughtful (and probably a deeply wonderful and caring person) but not so strong that I can’t layer nasty intentions and a cunning mind upon the poor innocent chap.

Of course, he won’t be the same. I will – as one does – take that flicker of memory, transmute that image into someone else entirely, and add all the nuances and personal history that this entirely new fictional person requires. All that will be left is the faintest echo of a face possibly once seen across a crowded hall. The Face has become something and someone else entirely

So today, returning to the tome, I am pleased. Now I have the face, a certain part of the struggle might become easier. He’s important: the main antagonist in an exciting adventure. I’m just sorry he can’t take his musical instrument along with him.

So that’s how it works for me, how a fictional character grows in my particular head. Sometimes I’ll stitch together – seamlessly – fragments from more than one person: a gesture here, a tone of voice there, a clothing detail from somewhere else.

I’m always fascinated by the way that other writer’s work. Some have amazing scrapbooks of postcards and cuttings, or artist’s notebooks filled with drawings of characters that are good enough to be illustrations. I even recall, ages ago, the author Anne Fine showing the Christmas magazine cover that gave her the idea for the central character for The Angel of Nitshill Road.

So, if you aren’t off scanning the scurrying crowds for the face you need, where do you get your characters from?

Penny Dolan

A BOY CALLED M.O.U.S.E, (Bloomsbury)


Sue Purkiss said...

Lovely account. Sounds like an intriguing character!

Joan Lennon said...

Excellent - now all you need is that time and space and peace and quiet!

Stroppy Author said...

Brilliant, Penny. I scan people in the real world and take surreptitious photos with my phone if I find someone perfect. Also, old postcards at car boot sales, books, magazines, Facebook...

One of my vampires is based on a girl who shared a house with Big Bint's boyfriend. I asked permission, sent her the book when it was published, as she has become a friend. So maybe let your band-member know?

Emma Barnes said...

It's odd how a face can trigger ideas for a character - even though "there is no art to read the mind's construction in the face" as some writer or other said. (The Bard even!)

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks, all. Won't be letting him know as the new incarnation is a decidedly nasty piece of work. But I can see the attraction for a teen of being a vampire.

Oddest was when I suddenly realised, as I was re-reading a finished story, just where or who an already created character has come from!

Sue Purkiss said...

That happened to me. The character was a ghost and a teacher - a very unpleasant one. I was reading a bit out to a class one day, and I suddenly realised I'd based him on an old teacher of mine, completely unawares. And the funny thing was that the illustrator's version of him looked remarkably like the original too...

Nicola Morgan said...

Penny, I so identify with this. I always need a face for my characters and I have to find one from the outside world. When I was writing The Highwayman's Curse, I needed several faces for a gang of baddies. (Very baddies). And not just faces, but bodies, too. And at the time, I was a member of a gym. I discovered that that's a fab place to find faces (and bodies) and I successfully sourced all my characters there. I'm not saying which gym!

Penny Dolan said...

A ghost of a ghost then, Sue? Worth a shiver, thaht's for sure.

Am now looking at gyms - and the bodies within - in a whole new light, Nicola.(Don't think I'd take Anne's surreptitious photos in such places, though.)