Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Fine Art of Talking to People Who Aren’t There: Drawing Fictional Characters to Life

 I’m delighted to have a wonderful, multi-talented writer as a guest on my blog today, Jeff Davis. Jeff is the author of a new YA fantasy novel, The Seeds.  

I was surprised to discover that, like me, Jeff likes to draw his characters and put them somewhere he can see them when he writes.

For at least 20 years, I’ve had a drawing of Toren taped under the hutch that goes over my desk. The look on her face tells me that she has a story that needs to be told. More recently I’ve had a drawing of Gilbert Garfinkle taped there too. Unlike Toren, the look on his face says, “Oh, no. What are you going to do to me this time?” Sorry, Gilbert, but I have to follow what I call Murphy’s Law for fiction writers: namely, if anything can go wrong for your main character, it should.

Jeff shared with me his thoughts about drawing characters and how this helps in the writing process. Even if you can’t draw, just having a visual representation of your character—perhaps an illustration or a photo you found online—can help you in the same way. I know some writers who collect photos on Pinterest that they use for inspiration.

So what exactly can a drawing of your character do for you?

Here’s Jeff with the answer to that question:


There’s a demon on my screen giving me attitude.

Matra from The Seeds by Jeff Davis

As a kid, I was always drawing. Usually heroes and dragons. Facing them, riding them, conjuring them, my characters were always captured within an action. Something was going on. I would sit and stare at them, waiting to find out how their stories played out in my mind’s eye. The stories were always so much more intriguing than my meager talents could portray. It was as if each drawing was seen through a window into whatever world I was dreaming up.

Fast forward to the present.

 Writing blog posts, web copy and promotional materials doesn’t leave much room for fantastic characters or muscle-bound heroes, even though that kind of writing does weave a narrative that’s suppose to whisk you off to a more utopian world. But fantasy fiction? Ah! 

That’s the thing.

When I started writing my first fantasy novel, “The Seeds”, it was written in my head far longer than it has existed in print. I would watch the characters move through scenarios in my mind’s eye, just like when I was a kid.  But, where a budding artist can draw a sword in a hand if the situation calls for it, a writer must make having that sword consistent, it must make sense.

 As an exercise in continuity, I decided to create a more complex set of designs for my first major effort. Each of the main characters was created in full color that I could pull up when necessary. Does he carry a sword? I might want to mention that fact somewhere before he whips it out. Physical descriptions? To avoid the characters from becoming perfect in every way, some boundaries are needed.

But, the most surprising and most frequent use of these visual references came when writing dialogue.

Witty banter is fun to write, and usually rolls right across my keyboard. For Varia and Dartura of “The Seeds”, being twins makes their conversations appear pointed and clipped. They know what the other is going to say almost before it's said, so only what is needed is expressed. It’s almost like the lossy compression of video for the web; only the pixels that change from the last keyframe are rendered. (If that makes sense to you, Yay! You’re a geek like me!)

But, it was the shadowy antagonist that vexed me.

How many times can one rely on writing “Bah!” to express contempt? I had to really convey a personality that I didn’t have in me--that of a conniving trickster old enough to be bored with her world, yet sinister enough to care little for the damage she does. So, I created Matra in graphic form.

Her eyes would stare malevolently at me as I posed questions to her. I would form dialogue, out loud, and actually ask if that was what she would say in that scenario. She didn’t really answer. (Thankfully, or I might be writing this from a padded cell.) But the disdain in her expression was enough for me to interpret when something worked (I hope), or when it didn’t.

I usually write whenever I get the chance, but most frequently at night, when the house is quiet. Often, my wife would open the door to my office, only to quietly close it again as I sat arguing with Matra. (“But, you hate this guy! Why would you be cordial?”) More than once my wife searched my eyes for some physical sign of the madness that was surely creeping over me. When I announced that “The Seeds” was complete, I was unsure which of us was more relieved.

Still, not only sketching but fully realizing my characters is a practice that I will continue to use as my writing improves. The illustrations take on a new life when complete, and for me at least, really form the basis of the inner workings of a character. The downside for the reader may be that they interpret the character differently, but that’s okay. I would like nothing more than for a reader to tell me, “I saw this character like this…”

If you are reading my work enough to form such opinions, it can only help me become a better writer.

Jeff Davis


Author bio:

Jeff Davis has worked with some of the finest high technology teams in the business and has delivered to some of the world's most recognizable companies the high quality graphics, multimedia and print materials they demand, all over the world. He majored in art and design, and he continues to regard himself as a student of the history and reinvention of popular culture. As an author, Jeff hopes to bring his unique ideas to life in this medium. A visitor to his studio office will be treated to the sounds of Led Zeppelin, Sheryl Crow, Kate Bush and traditional Celtic music. Jeff resides an hour north of Manhattan, N.Y. with his wife and two children.


This is not your grandmother's fairy tale. A fantasy novel that turns the genre on its head, "The Seeds" follows Trooper Angus Mayweather as he is thrust into the conflict faced by twin sisters Dartura & Varia, Generals of the Tarol Nation. As the sisters uncover a new threat from an old enemy, Angus must do what he can to help as the Tarol Nation faces all-out war.

Click here to check out drawings of Characters from“The Seeds”.
Order "The Seeds" from Smashwords
Find Jeff Davis on Google+Facebookor Twitter @JDSavageTV


Do you find drawing from other mediums helps you with writing?  If so, what medium, and how does it help? Do you have a picture of your main character or a place in your story? Does listening to a certain kind of music put you in the right mood? If you haven't thought of using pictures this way before, how do you think they might help  you? What would you ask your main character, and how do you think your main character would respond? 

Please leave your answers in the comments below. Thanks!

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