Discovering Character through Place

Jennie MacDonaldThe following is a guest post by Jennie MacDonald, whose artwork appeared in Issue 16 of Typehouse.

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As an author and photographer, I am always interested in finding ways in which narratival writing and visual imagery intersect. For the reader, powerful writing conjures images of places, characters, and actions. For the viewer, a powerful narratival photograph depicts objects that– in relation to one another– create a story. When I encounter difficulties with writing, I turn to visual work for a different creative perspective and look for new ways of thinking about storytelling.

Lately, I’ve been stymied by the protagonist of my current work-in-progress. I just don’t know what her true motivation is for even showing up in the opening scene. I’ve drafted the scene and know the basics about it: location, characters, what happens, and where things stand at the end of the chapter. But why does my protagonist even appear?

In his recent interview with Dennis Rimmer at the Talking Books and Stuff podcast, author Alan Bradley spoke about creating characters. Bradley writes the Flavia de Luce novels, which are centered on eleven-year-old Flavia, whose penchant for chemistry and forensic science lead her into all kinds of gruesome murder mysteries. She first unexpectedly appeared in a completely different novel Bradley was working on and proved so compelling that he published his tenth Flavia de Luce novel this year and is looking forward to the television series now in development.

According to Bradley, “…stop trying to impose anything upon the paper and just let the characters appear and speak for themselves . . . . they live in the story and know the landscape much better than you do.”

This set a bell ringing for me. I’m a photographer. I love landscape. As a writer, I love describing places. What if I start by focusing on the place where this opening scene takes place? Can I then wait for my protagonist to show up, since she lives there and knows the landscape (which is about more than just location—it’s historical, interpersonal, ecological, and filled with expectations) better than I do?

Photographing wildlife and candid human culture happens like this for me. I may focus on the setting, adjust for lighting and time of day, set the mood and atmosphere, and wait for an animal or person to move to the perfect spot in the frame. Or I follow the animal or person with my lens and click the shutter at the instant they do something interesting.

Although I compose the photograph, the characters each have their own reasons for their actions in that instant. They are motivated before they appear. This is what makes their actions meaningful and interesting. The bird flies from her nest to find food for her chicks. The child runs to greet his grandfather.

I know I can figure out why my protagonist has stepped into this frame—this place—and how she does it, and where she’s coming from. Then we’ll be on our way together.

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Jennie MacDonald, PhD, is an award-winning author and photographer. “A Merry Widow or Two” received the 2019 Colorado Authors League Award of Excellence for Stageplay. Short stories and photographs have appeared in Typehouse Literary Review, Eastern Iowa Review, 3Elements Literary Review, The Esthetic Apostle, and others. Her edited collection, Schabraco and other Gothic Tales from The Lady’s Monthly Museum, 1798-1828, is forthcoming in 2020. Other publications include academic articles concerning 18th and 19th century Gothic literature, theatre, and visual and material culture.

4 thoughts on “Discovering Character through Place”

  1. Sometimes we over explain in attempts to get the reader/viewer on our side. This is a wonderful explanation ( not “over” explanation) of how to trust the reader/viewer into the moment.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Christine! Yes, it’s tempting to pile too much information onto an opening scene, especially. We basically walk into “opening scenes” all the time in life and figure out what’s going on as we proceed through new encounters. We–and readers–are already trained to do this. It’s our shared starting point and where that trust comes from.

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