It shouldn’t be any surprise that my creative inspirations come mostly from visual formats. While the generation of my childhood didn’t have YouTube, we had television, and we had VHS; we could re-watch anything ripped from television or from another tape, at least until the magnetic tape wore down or the VCR suddenly turned to the dark side and chewed up the tape. I recall performing a home repair on a copy of Labyrinth using a single piece of clear tape… didn’t save that one frame or stretch of tape, but did allow the VHS to play once again. And then, video games began to emerge that had increasingly complex stories, graphics, cutscenes performed to the best dramatic music you could wring out of a 16-bit platform. We still read books, but if my works have what some call a more “cinematic” arrangement or style, perhaps all art can inspire all other art; we experience movies and television, and that can influence the way we write books or sing songs or anything else.
And yet, in the world of words, I zero in on words themselves. I may start off with snippets of visuals in my mind, but I suffer from a disconnect where I don’t actually know what visual is conjured up by the reader based on the words I’ve put down; once the words are down, it becomes about their spelling, syntax, arrangement, not necessarily reaching far beyond that. I believe it’s called, not being the reader and not having their brain hooked up to mine as I write things. It’s probably better that way, because everyone’s perfectly capable of having their own disturbing thoughts without being directly hooked up to a writer.
Every time I work with a visual artist (a digital artist, or even dancers) they ask important questions and force me to pay attention to whatever I’m overlooking. I’m not nearly as detail-oriented as Tolkien, so simple things like what natural hair colour a person has sometimes get left unanswered in the copy. When I describe anybody, it’s because their differences define them in the eyes of others; for example, Chandra sure doesn’t look like the former Queen, and her physical traits aren’t average for a Kensrikan or a member of her family, and that makes a huge difference in how people treat her. But the more distant you get from her, the less I can say off the top of my head. I sometimes have more of an idea what a character wears than how she looks, but none of my characters are invisible, or collections of levitating garments.
Who do I see in the mental pictures, then? It can get random. Former classmates. People I’ve known. Animated characters. I can’t stay with them because even though the personality of a character usually has nothing to do with the person whose face I give them, it would get really awkward if I proceeded to commission art that followed the real look of a person who has nothing to do with the project. Artistic collaborators may think they have to live up to my artistic vision, but what they often do is help me elaborate the features of a person who has never been given a canonical portrait.
Just being asked what height a person is, what length of hair, eye colour, what they’re doing; these basic questions are ones you should keep with you after a commissioned artwork is done. They can form part of a useful creative exercise that you can reuse. At the very least, sailing into uncharted waters, reaching for questions for which you don’t have any immediate answer, aren’t going to hurt you as a writer.