Mathing, Visualization and Celebrity Tricks (or: How My Brain Works When Writing)

Math. I am no good at it. Nay—I suck. I’ve slipped below suckage at math and generally stagnate at the point below which suckage can eke its slurpy, slimy function.

My newly-minted teenager, my “wee man,” on the other hand, is scary brilliant with numbers. Last year, when his class performed timed math tests, the children would conclude with the lightning round—which consisted of my son (and only my son) racing to the board and whipping off more math while the class cheered him on and clocked him for a new personal record.

He doesn’t get it from me.

My inability to math was a source of distress for me growing up. I’m a perfectionist. I am at least competent in just about everything I put my mind to trying. So why can’t I math?

It’s a shortcoming that I’ve come to terms with. In my older, wiser years, I’ve even been able to pinpoint where my deficiencies lie. It is that I am a visual person. I can create worlds and lives and stories in my head and live them out in great detail. But I need to see what’s going on. I need to imagine. Biology? No problem. I can easily picture the process of osmosis. I cannot picture calculus. The images just aren’t there. Give me a formula and a bunch of problems, and I can do it. But give me a bunch of problems and ask me to figure out which multiple formulas to use and in what order? I’m getting cold sweats just thinking about it even after all these years of flunking out of calculus… because I can’t see it in my head.

All this is to say that I’ve got a strong sense of visual interpretation. It dominates everything I do from navigating traffic to playing piano to planning a meal. Images and patterns and colours play out in my head as vibrantly as if I were watching a movie, and I must understand what I’m doing visually if I am going succeed at it… whatever “it” is.

I’ve been told many times before that my writing is descriptive. That I evoke feelings when writing of places and scenery and imagery. This is no accident. The reason I do this is because I need to see it for myself. I need these words to come to life in head-dancing pictures if I’m going to get myself from start to finish in my own story.

Funny how in mathing, my visuality is a hindrance where in writing it’s a strength.

That being said, I’m writing today to make a confession. A humoured admittance, if you will. I’m going to share a trick that I use to help me visualize my characters. Once upon a time, way back at the start of my writing career, I would decide what my characters would look like. write their physical traits down on a tracking document, and refer back to them every time I needed to. But I found that I had a hard time consistently visualizing them in my stories.

To combat this, I’ve employed “the trick.” The celebrity trick. Yes, you guessed it: almost all of my characters are represented by celebrities in my head. I laugh to admit it, but hey—we all need our memory tricks, don’t we? So, without further ado (and please know that I’m chuckling with deep chagrin right about now), I’d like to introduce you to a small selection of characters that may have… er… real-life doppelgangers out there in Hollywood world.

Ciaran Halloran, Shadow:

Ciaran begins his journey as an angry entity haunting the home of clairvoyant Tilly Bright. In death he is frightening, and terrorizes her with the image of his rage-filled eyes. In life, he is charismatic, charming, and striking.

“The click for Tilly was suddenly figuring out why the eyes had been the focal point of his attacks. They’d been cold and penetrating. They’d paralyzed her with dread. Anyone with eyes like that had to know the power they held over others.”

In my head, Ciaran Halloran looks like:

Photo Credit: HBO

Oh man, what Jonathan Rhys Meyers can do with those eyes! He’s got a strong presence, and I swear, his eyes hold superhuman powers! With Meyers’ face in my head as I was writing Ciaran, it was easy to imagine facial expressions, moments of humour, moments of tension, and moments of tenderness.

Emmie Tunstall, The Ghosts of Tullybrae House:

A kind-hearted girl with a sweet appearance, Emmie moves through life with a sense of disconnect owing to a turbulent childhood. Though she’s managed to paper over this hole in her identity by striving for perfection in everything she does, her world begins to fall apart when forces she cannot control pull her into a haunting and a murder.

“Emmie smiled eagerly at the man, her fresh, pink face raised upwards. Sunny curls were twisted at the nape of her neck and secured in a tortoiseshell clip. Her slight torso was clad in a stylish tweed jacket with three-quarter-length sleeves, and underneath it was a white blouse of gauzy satin. She wore snug, black pants with brown, knee-high riding boots overtop. A silver charm bracelet dangled from a delicate wrist.”

In my head, Emmie Tunstall resembles:

Theresa Palmer is SO CUTE! She’s got this fresh-faced, sweetheart look that I absolutely adore. But she totally pulls off a bad-ass babe in Warm Bodies with a fighting spirit and a heart of gold. I have no trouble imagining Emmie as everyone’s sweetheart when she looks like Theresa Palmer.

Tess Radcliffe, The Haunting of Tess:

“She didn’t like the way she looked in pictures most of the time. Her mouth bothered her. It moved strangely, rested strangely. The top row of teeth was more prominent than the bottom. She used to joke with Brad that someone had pieced her head together from a bin of spare parts. And Brad would tell her she was crazy. That he loved her mouth; that it was sexy as hell.”

In my head, Tess Radcliffe looks like:

Photo Credit: Hollywood Life

Now, to be very clear, I find Emma Stone stunning! I imagine Tess being self-conscious about her unique mouth, whereas on Emma Stone, it is compelling. Alluring, and sexy as hell. Tess is a striking woman, and with Emma Stone in my head when I’m writing her, I can easily visualize what Tess is doing, thinking and feeling.

What about you, writing friends? Do you have a similar trick you use to help you visualize your story? What about the readers out there? Do you picture people you know as characters in the books you’re reading? Why or why not? Drop a comment with your thoughts; I’d love to know!

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