Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Art in Character Development

Art, choices

A great many good international spy stories take place in museums or galleries in front of specific pictures that often have meaning to the story. You have only to look at Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code to see how art choices can be used effectively in a story. In the Harry Potter stories the pictures move, talk and interact with the students. There is great significance to the portraits and from time to time they play integral parts in the advancement of the plot. They also have that are clearly defined personalities and add great dimension to the story.

Choices like art and literature can be great class signifiers not only for your characters but for you as a writer. They signify background, education, involvement in pop culture and culture in general. You can write to an exclusive audience by making reference to art without explaining it and assuming that your audience will understand your references with out explanation. Or you can help to educate your readers without being condescending to an area of culture that interests you and that you think will be interesting to others. Name dropping of artists, particularly if you pronounce their names wrote can be a delightful put down of a social climbing character. All of Dan Brown’s work explains place, art and symbols so that they expand the knowledge of the reader. Examine the way art is used to define Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs.”

As a useful exercise, make a separate page for art choices.

• Cut out pictures of what each character would hang on his walls and come to some conclusions about why he chose those particular pictures.
• Select the art as a madman, a stalker, a poor person who loves art and cuts pictures from magazines or calendars, a fan, a criminal, a thief.
• If you were decorating this character’s home describe what art would he select for his walls?
• Does this character go to museums, to galleries, to sales of classic reproductions in street sales, to Sears? Does art play no part in his life at all and why? I have heard a blind teacher say that the visual arts are unimportant, but after Degas, the famous artist of ballet dancers, went blind he turned to making sculptures.
• Which art and medium would your character choose and why?
• Do particular pictures or artists play a defining role in this character’s life? If so, how?

You can have lots of fun with art and artists in writing. In the movie, based on the book, “Lust for Life” there is great contrast drawn between the artists Vincent Van Gogh – wild, messy, passionate and Paul Gauguin – disciplined, neat, critical. It’s a point of conflict and in fiction conflict is good.

You can also use art to describe scenes that will immediately elicit an understanding of what you are describing in only a few words. The sky over El Greco’s “Toledo” is an instant recall of a certain dark gray, stormy sky, in late afternoon. You don’t have to describe the violent clouds of many shades of gray, set with white, roiling over the city and surrounding fields.

How the writer uses art in a work of fiction is a great term paper subject if the writer utilizes that medium to advance the plot or the understanding of character. What the writer would have chosen as art, if he had described art in his work of fiction, would be of particular interest. For example Hamlet’s house would probably have featured numerous tapestries which were not only used as wall decorations, but to keep down drafts in the uninsulated castles.


If an artist is identified with a certain style of portrait, it is sometimes very easy to describe a character by naming the artist. Heavy-set female characters are often called Rubinesque. You have only to read the “Man Wanted” column in the Newspaper to see how many women describe themselves in those terms. A body like a Greek statue immediately tells you a great deal about that beautifully muscled, well proportioned body of an athlete.

• What artist’s work would you use to describe this character? Why?
• Would the character agree or disagree with that description?
• Would the character be pleased or displeased with that description?

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