How to make photofits of your characters

When I was planning out my second novel, Let Us Be True, I knew I didn’t want to give too many physical details about the main characters, Ralf and Elsa, but I still wanted to know exactly what they looked like myself, so that I could imagine how they might appear to each other and how they would fit together as a couple.

I decided to make photofits of each of them, and spent a long time figuring out a way of doing it without any complicated software (in the end, I used PowerPoint). I started out with a computer-generated generic Caucasian face I found online, made it 70% transparent, then found images of people I thought they might each look like – a little of the young Alain Delon in Ralf, a little of the young Natalie Portman in Elsa. I combined about eight photos for each face, re-sizing them, placing them carefully on top of the previous photo and tweaking their transparency so that they built up in layers. Faces began to emerge. I found myself staring at Ralf and Elsa – completely imagined, imaginary people who nonetheless looked strangely real.

Now, when people ask me who would play Ralf and Elsa in the film, I want to show them the photofits and tell them it’s simple – all they have to do is find these imaginary people from my head. But I realise that makes me sound delusional, so I’ve been trying to think of alternatives.

The two actors that spring to mind first are Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander, a real-life couple who played opposite one another in the brilliant adaptation of The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman. But then I remember how great Dominic West is, and he looks kind of like Ralf. But he’s playing Alicia Vikander’s dad in the new Tomb Raider, so that’s not going to work. Although Tuppence Middleton was great in War and Peace

I think it’s fair to say I’m never going to make it as a casting director, but at least now I have a fun way of visualising my characters.

 

First published on Jera’s Jamboree.

Why Place is Character

There’s this idea that we are born as a discrete unit, placed onto the surface of the world, moving around in a fleshy little body. The world is just a map that you land on, randomly spawned like a character in a video game. And that idea is quite convenient for anyone who subscribes to a broadly liberal world view, because it allows us to believe in the ‘accident of birth’, an idea that ‘I’ could have been born anywhere and happened to fall out here and now. But unfortunately, each of us only has an identity at all thanks to our surroundings. The social psychologist Dr Bruce Hood writes that ‘keeping you alive is not the sole function nor the responsibility of the brain… When you take a closer look at our planet and all its life forms, it soon becomes apparent that the original reason why living things evolved brains was for movement… Arguably the main reason that the brain evolved was to navigate the world – to work out where you currently are, remember where you have been and decide where you are going next.’1

The earliest knowledge we have about our species is where we were. Place came before culture, before consciousness. I am here, therefore I am. We only have brains in the first place as a way to situate ourselves, to retain and manipulate our sense of place, which is one of the reasons why we have such prodigious spatial memories (if you don’t believe me, Google memory palaces). It is not an accident that I was born here and not over there, because I literally wouldn’t be me if I was born over there. From this perspective, it’s impossible not to think of each of us as products and prisoners of a particular time and place.

So often, writers talk about creating character and creating place as if the two are completely separate enterprises – it’s that view of the character as a little ball of impulses, rolling around and bumping into things. If you subscribe to that view, place can only ever be a colourful, two-dimensional backdrop, like the plywood sky that the boat bumps into in The Truman Show. But to me, it is impossible to understand your character if you don’t understand their surroundings, since that character is an expression of the place.

In my second novel, Let Us Be True, I focused on two characters that find each other in Paris in 1958, just as the French Fourth Republic, founded after the Second World War, is in crisis. They find each other, and begin to fall in love, but neither of them knows anything about the other’s past. We know they weren’t always living in Paris. But where did they come from? Where were they during the war? And how did they end up here? Is Paris a home or a hiding place?

For each of us, understanding our place in the world – finding ourselves – is the key to escaping our present situation. What is a situation, after all, if not where we happen to be sitting?

 

First published on Nut Press

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A strange, wise novel

George Saunders is the most lauded short-story writer living today, revered in America to the point of canonisation. Among many other accolades, he has been awarded a Macarthur “Genius” Fellowship and named by TIME magazine, in a characteristic departure from reality, as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

He rose to prominence in the UK in 2013 with publication of his short story collection The Tenth of December, a bright, brilliant firework of a collection, which received rave reviews and won the inaugural Folio Prize (now the Rathbones Folio Prize). This made his debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, one of the most anticipated books of 2017.

Saunders’s stories often follow a certain structure: refusing to explain their rules at first, they seem strange and impenetrable; gradually, a world recognisably like our own is revealed, but in some way estranged or uncanny; the story and its conventions begin to converge purposefully and forcefully; and finally, out of nowhere, we are hit with a wave of compassion, the very last thing we expected of an ostensibly experimental story. Even when we do learn to expect it, the sheer aching sympathy of his characters challenges you to be better, kinder, more humane.

Lincoln in the Bardo follows this same broad structure, charting one night in the graveyard where the young Willie Lincoln, son of Abe, has just been interred. Although Lincoln Sr features, it is really young Willie who is in the bardo, a Tibetan word for an intermediate state between lives in Buddhism, similar to the Christian limbo. None of the characters there are able to acknowledge that they are dead, delicately referring to “that previous place” and calling their coffins “sick-boxes” as if they are merely resting up for a return. All here are restless souls, snagged on some troubling detail of their past life like Williams the hunter, who sits caring for the great pile of animals he has killed.

There is a touching trio of elders who take Willie under their wing: roger bevins iii, a young gay man covered in eyes; hans vollman, who lugs around a “tremendous member”, having been taken ill while anticipating his marriage-bed; and the reverend everly thomas, who is adamant that this is no place for a child, and that Willie must depart as soon as possible, for whatever the next life holds. Except Willie won’t go. He is waiting for his father.

Writing Abraham Lincoln is like playing Hamlet – fraught by competing, contested interpretations, impossible to begin anew – and Saunders confronts the historicity of the novel with a polyphonic, argumentative chorus. Different observers tell us Lincoln’s eyes are “gray”, “gray-brown”, “bluish-brown”, “bluish-gray”, “blue”; he is both “the ugliest man I had ever seen” and, to another, “the handsomest man I ever saw”. Saunders is not reverent towards Lincoln, whom he depicts at one point riding his nag with his long legs hanging down like “some sort of man-sized insect”. But we do not hear Lincoln Sr’s testimony directly – we literally inhabit him, as roger bevins iii and hans vollman sit within him to understand his thoughts.

The novel is not, as is being suggested, a masterpiece, but it does reveal Saunders’s many great qualities, not least of which is the hard-won gift of empathy, and his emphasis on the importance of “kind little words, which are of the same blood as great and holy deeds”. It takes a couple of chapters to attune yourself to the clamour of voices, but the reward is a strange, wise novel, truer in its expression than many ostensibly historical novels, and a reassurance that America has survived a war with itself before.

First published in New Humanist, Spring 2017. You can subscribe to the magazine here.