Aubrey Johnson, the protagonist in my manuscript Blue Sun, Yellow Sky, is a painter who discovers that in six to eight weeks she’ll be completely blind. I myself couldn’t paint a flower to save my life, but I was fascinated with the idea of someone in her late twenties losing the identity she spent her life cultivating. Ideas are fickle that way; sometimes they emerge but require a great deal of research.
To get into the mind of a painter, I spent a lot of time in art galleries and museums. Not being a painter myself, I had to read a lot about painting technique, color mixing, shadow and light composition and historical context. But I also needed my character to be relatable and feel real, so she couldn’t just spit facts out here and there about art. She needed to have a unique perspective.
As the writer, I needed to readers to first believe that she was a painter and then accept the quirky facets I attached to her personality. I was very self-conscious that readers wouldn’t connect with my character or think of her as a real painter if I didn’t adhere to certain artistic standards. So, at first, I pulled facts and ideas from books I read about certain art pieces and I tossed the phrases into her vernacular every chance I could. But when she started to feel like an art history major I knew something had to change.
In my research, I came across a TED talk by Tracy Chevalier about finding the story inside the painting. At the beginning of her talk, she boldly admits that when she walks into an art gallery or museum, many of the paintings simply do not strike a chord with her. This might be pretty universal but not many people talk about it, and that kind of raw honestly about art’s subjectivity was what released me from the chains of “authenticity” and moved me towards creating a unique character with a distinct voice. Characters, like people, are most interesting when they’re flawed, so unbinding her from the idea she had to know everything about every painter and style of painting was freeing.
Unless I’m writing a historical piece my character can be whoever she wants to be. Restricting her tastes to what is commonly considered to be the highbrow tastes of artists limits my ability to create my own character. By allowing Aubrey to sometimes like things that might be considered lowbrow among art enthusiasts, I avoided the pitfall of creating a clichéd character. After all, who wants to read about a character that never surprises them?
I’m not saying not to do the research. Without a basic understanding of the medium it is impossible to build on or strip away an identity. What I’m suggesting is do the research and then give your characters the freedom to choose whether or not they accept or reject those ideas. Then watch as your characters’ personalities open up and they start to come alive.