There are certain steps in starting out a new project that I now realize are not optional. They provide fuel that keeps me going, even activating my subconscious. One of the most important of these steps is to make desktop wallpapers for my devices—my own take on a vision board. I learn so much about the characters, plots, and worlds this way.
Take this picture of Craig, for instance. He’s a four-armed, Lyrian “space-Sasquatch” (don’t tell him I called him that, but it’s true—in the world of The Department of Homeworld Security, he and his mate, Barbara, are responsible for a lot of “Bigfoot” sightings). Craig was a pivotal character in Entry Visa, so I included him in my vision board while I was working on that story.
Lyrians are actually white-furred and have ears shaped like bat wings, but I didn’t have the photo editing skills (or time) back then to tweak this picture more. The edits I did still took time, and that gave my brain space to sort of soak into the character. There were a bunch of pictures of gorillas I could choose from, but this was the one whose expression was closest to how Craig feels in the book (which is mostly, “OMG, Henry is only 26, and he’s an orphan, and that’s MUCH too young for these hoomans to be on their own, no matter how much he keeps saying he’s “an adult” and “fully grown”.”).
Going through pictures to find just the right one for each character helps me to nail down what I call their “root emotion”—the feeling they can’t escape from that underlies everything they do and colors their perspectives. Garrett, from Whispering Hearts, was usually smiling and happy when I imagined him, but the only picture that resonated with me was of the actor I’d picked for him looking down and sort of intense and dejected. Exploring why that particular expression was the one that called to me helped to shape his character arc and the entire series. Taking the time to find the right picture revealed his inner truth and made him a much deeper character.
I have a Pinterest board for my Department of Homeworld Security characters (only visit it if you’re okay seeing how I envision the characters!). It was such fun to create, and to dream of who I’d cast if these were made into movies (and in some cases, if I had a time machine <3 ). I even did some “before and after” pictures to show how the characters change after being exposed to Earthlings.
Zemanni, the shape-shifting assassin who gets his own book in Duration of Stay, ends up trapped in the form of Eric Peterson, the hero from Tied up in Customs. I went through pictures of the same actor, finding the same hair style and general look, but radically different expressions that captured each of their root emotions (And then got to do the same thing while finding photos for the cover model. That was a challenge!).
It was actually so much fun, and the time I spent rejecting pictures outright, pondering ones that were almost what I was looking for, and finally finding “the ones”, was time spent with the characters. Deciding who they were and who they weren’t. Thinking about how they became who they are, and in their cases, how sentient beings might become good or evil.
The most powerful benefit of doing this, though, is how it fuels my creative projects. I put my vision boards on every screen that surrounds me (and wow, there are a lot of screens around people nowadays). When I minimize something, even if I’m not working on my project, I see the characters staring back at me (and sometimes spaceships or cool buildings that fit into their worlds <3 ). I may not even register what I’m seeing consciously, but it feeds into my subconscious, keeping the creative wheels turning.
If I get stuck while I’m writing, I’ll clear my screen so I can look at the vision board, sometimes even talking to my characters and asking them questions. It really helps to keep me focused and motivated.
With my most recent Homeworld novella, I tried to skip this step. I found myself feeling disconnected from the characters and generally uninspired. The moment I made the vision board, the characters crystallized in my mind. Having images to focus on brought them into focus.
Vision boards are a vital step in my creative process. Now that I know, I’ll never skip making one again!
What do you do to keep your creative focus and momentum on a project? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
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Thanks for reading 🙂