Getting Inside Your Characters

Character ResearchAll writing projects come with some form of research and fiction navigates this pursuit to some interesting destinations. Recently, I spent the day as Jade Weekes, the main character of my art mystery series, crisscrossing The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Becoming your character and looking at the world from their point of view is an easy way to get inside their minds and explore how they think and most importantly, how they react.

How Jade Views Art

Every work of art has multiple layers of history, emotion and humanity. Each artist brings their personal experiences to the canvas, building up layers of paint to capture their thoughts or painstakingly scraping into wood or stone to unveil what only they can see. The next layer is the life of the art work. It passes from creator to patron, to buyer, to museums and thieves – each individual imbuing it with their personal history, continuing a journey of thought as well as emotion.

This is the connection Jade has with Dalì, Mìro and van Gogh. She identifies with their stories as she struggles to paint the picture of her own identity. She looks at a Degas sketch and sees the man not the dancer.

Jade’s Gallery Review

Jumping into Jade’s mindset begins with walking through security. She’s a security expert as well as a thief, and she notices much more than docent wandering galleries or nylon queue barriers organizing visitors.

Jade pays attention to the people around her and looks for groups that offer distraction so she can slip through these barriers unnoticed. She’s aware of the behaviors that attract attention. She knows how to hide her intent. She knows how to look innocent.

Roses, Vincent van Gogh 1890 Once red, the pigment used for these roses faded to a tinged white over time.
Roses, Vincent van Gogh 1890
Once red, the pigment used for these roses faded to a tinged white over time.

A short list of what she looks for?

  • Psychological barriers meant to keep visitors a pre-determined distance from the art. This includes ropes, toe molding, and carpet borders that create a subconscious line not to be crossed.
  • Cameras – specifically, missing cameras. Next she has to verify the void in surveillance or identify if another measure is in place such as sensors attached to paintings. It’s no surprise to her that some galleries are tightly quarantined within small spaces with multiples cameras covering every angle and foot traffic herded in a predetermined pattern. This is where her favorite acquisitions reside.
  • She counts docents and notes how many alcoves and galleries each covers. Jade is a master at body language and knows which are experienced and who can be distracted.

Jade plays scenarios through her mind, timing how long it would take to reach an interior gallery and what obstacles lie between it and a door. The door would not be the main entrance, but a service access, perhaps even the cafeteria. After all, she became good at her job by thinking beyond the moment. Her imagination takes the art all the way to a safe house. If she were setting up the security, the process would be the same – looking for the cracks in the shield.

The Art

I must say, I began to feel a bit paranoid after a while. Eyeing wall hangings and surreptitiously locating security cameras had me playing the “what if” game, constructing micro-plots. Writers see plots and red herrings at every turn.

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Animated Landscape, Joan Mìro 1927

Joan Mìro is among my favorites at the MET and I spent a great deal of time working out how to get in or close to the gallery with his work. Due to bad timing, the adjoining galleries on both sides were closed off. I managed to get this view from a distance. His dreamscapes are something Jade can understand, as her dreams – filled with grotesque images and mutilated art – play a backdrop to her inner character.

This is the Color of My Dreams, Joan Miro 1925
This is the Color of My Dreams, Joan Miro 1925

If blue is the color of Mìro’s dreams, Jade’s would be the complex hue of the Seine.

 

 

 

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Bouquet of Sunflowers, Claude Monet 1881

It was Monet’s opinion that his sunflowers were the lesser of van Gogh’s. Jade can visualize how each brings its own qualities of light and color to the flowers. Looking at the ridges of paint building up from a base shade to ever more vibrant hues makes it easy to imagine a hand holding the brush, a frown, and bristles molding the paint like clay to give life and texture to the image.

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Detail – Bouquet of Sunflowers, Claude Monet 1881

She expresses her emotion through art. Her passion is mirrored in what she pursues. Being in Jade’s thoughts for the day and regarding these works with her perspective launched new ideas for Enigma and more stories beyond that. She sees Gauguin’s passion in the rounded, sensual curves of his work and the frailty of van Gogh’s tree boughs against an open field and senses his unrest.

What are your characters doing? What are their interests? Taking on their viewpoint during a research excursion can bring you closer to their motivations and give you insights on their personality and logical reactions to the events in your story.

Click to enlarge:

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The Flowering Orchard, Vincent van Gogh 1888
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Detail – The Flowering Orchard, Vincent van Gogh 1888
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The Siesta, Paul Gauguin 1892-94
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Still Life with Teapot and Fruit, Paul Gauguin 1896