Many years ago I wrote my first superhero story, for one of my creative writing courses. The premise I originally started with was pretty simple: the story would be about a guy whose neighbor (or roommate) was a superhero, but this poor hapless fellow was completely clueless to the fact. I pitched the idea to a classmate; she (her name was Katherine) loved the idea and wondered aloud at what sort of state the clueless neighbor would have to be in, mentally, for that scenario to be believable. Katherine was completely right. Just look at how unbelievable someone like, say, Lois Lane is. An ace news reporter not seeing that her co-worker is Superman? Puh-leeze. But when you have a character like Reed Richards, Mr Fantastic of the Fantastic Four, miss out on his son playing by the open portal to the Negative Zone, it’s not so ridiculous; Reed is a classic absent-minded professor, so focused on his work that he can miss the mundane around him. (This of course all goes out the window if you’re playing it purely for comedic value.)
So I needed a character like that. Someone who would have the fantastic living next door but be so self absorbed or distracted by his or her own problems that they wouldn’t notice. For those taking notes, this is the sort of thought process that takes you from having just a gimmicky idea to an actual story. Kate booted me onto that process, even if, that summer, she would famously stand me up at the now defunct Dan’s Bar 🙂 .
Around the same time, I read a story that I’m completely blanking on the name or author of now and it’s killing me. When I get home I’ll look it up. (I’m thinking of a Bernard Malamud story, perhaps?) Anyway, this short story was about a painter who worked for (kidnapped by, maybe? I forget) a gang of art thieves. The thieves would steal a famous painting, and he would recreate it so the museum would be none the wiser. I may have the details wrong, because it’s been a long time, but that was the gist of it. It’s a brilliant story.
Around the same time, one of my closest friends, Robert, was an actual painter. Great guy, he had so many paintings he didn’t have room for them at his place, so many of us had an original Stroud hanging on our walls. We would get drunk and bullshit philosophy like it was the most profound thing in the world. (I don’t make many goals in life, but to someday be able to afford a Stroud is one of my personal benchmarks of success.)
All of this gave birth to my painter character, Jackson. Jackson lived simply, shunning the outside of world and material things. He chose to focus on his art to the exclusion of all else. This of course led to creative stagnation and a general ennui. His new neighbor, whom the story implies is a superhero, causes him to realize the fullness of life, blah blah blah, you get the idea. I love Jackson and I think he’s still one of my better developed characters, but it’s a pretty stock plot, and when I look at the story now it’s hilariously dated. You can definitely tell what movies and music I was into at the time. I’m still pretty fond of that story, though, because I think every good writer has a painter character in them.
The arts are not terribly different, and we tend to write what we know, even when it’s clothed in something fantastic. That’s why you see so many stories and movies about the process and difficulties of creating art. It’s just us venting or working through things. If you go by the Hollywood, 80% of the world makes its living off writing or directing.
For me, painting is more than just that, though. I think the creative process itself is similar. We both start with a blank page into which we pour something personal that we hope will entertain, please, and maybe even stir up thought. The process of getting your work out to the public can be just as frustrating. The same forces of commercialism and freedom of expression tear at both the writer and painter. The very tools we each use, whether it’s word selection or acrylics versus watercolor, can be as important as the final product. There’s a lot of common ground.
Any writers out there agree? If not painting, there must be some artisan talent near and dear to you other than writing. Look for it, and you’ve got a story there.