A fascinating aspect of reading fiction is that, sometimes despite the best efforts of the author, every reader must have a different mental image of each character — most likely a synthesis of their own experience and from triggers picked up from the text. Most ‘best-practice’ writing advice tends to suggest the author should leave as much detail to the reader’s imagination as possible — only providing concrete descriptions that are vital to quickly establish character or to provide information necessary to the plot.
When a novel is adapted for film or television this often leads to disappointment for readers of the original novel — an actor or actress may be physically dissimilar to how they imagined a character or, perhaps worse, behaves in an entirely different way. I read something recently in the Radio Times complaining about Stephen Tompkinson not being at all like the writer had imagined Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks in ‘Aftermath’.
(Parts of the second episode of which were filmed on the moors very near where I grew up. Look at those intimidating pylons on the picture on the left. They loomed over me every day. ).
The converse of the reader’s mental image is that a writer must also have a picture of a character in mind when writing fiction. Again this must be a mixture of experience and imagination that rarely transfers directly into a reader’s imagination, although, like screenwriters, if a novelist is writing a series of books that has been featured on film or television then they may start writing for a specific actor. I seem to remember Colin Dexter saying this about John Thaw as Inspector Morse.
Occasionally, however, writers must have the image of a character in mind and see some sort of very close likeness in the visual representation of a person — a photograph or picture or something on film or television. I recently had that sort of revelation in connection with the new BBC3 drama series, ‘Lip Service‘. It was the publicity photos for the series on the front of, I think, the Guardian’s Saturday Review section that made me take notice: the actress Ruta Gedmintas, pictured as her character Frankie in the series is a very close fit for how I see my character Kim — at least Kim at the start of the novel.
It’s partly the urban-arty clothing (Frankie’s meant to be a photographer) and her gaunt physical appearance — and she has short-ish blonde hair and a nose piercing, even green eyes. I don’t know whether Frankie is meant to portray a particular lesbian style of dressing. Kim in my novel isn’t gay (I think Frankie is actually meant to be bisexual) but Kim certainly comes from a arty-edgy culture in Shoreditch and Hackney where she will mix with and be influenced by a lot of gay people. Â (And similarly in my writing experience I have and have had plenty of contact with gay writers and have workshopped gay fiction.)
Frankie is, of course, different to Kim in many ways but, the character, as played by Ruta Gedmintas, captures a startlingly arresting attitude. She has a very interesting, expressive face that varies between a the kind of ‘fuck you’ arrogance of an urban artist and a very genuine smile that shows flashes of concealed vulnerability — two contrasting character facets I’m trying to work on bringing out with Kim. Ruta Gedmintas is probably prettier than I imagine Kim to be but that may be because in my novel, Kim deliberately makes herself look confrontational to start with but she will have the sort of understated beauty that becomes increasingly attractive to James.
I was a bit intrigued by having stumbled over such an uncanny resemblance to a character I’ve had living in my head for around a year. I found from a couple of interviews online that Ruta Gedmintas comes from a Lithuanian family (hence the unusual name) — so perhaps her appearance has an Eastern European aspect, which may have made me think of German Kim — but the actress was brought up in Buckinghamshire which, co-incidentally, is where the bulk of my novel is set — in the Chilterns. (This, perhaps, explains why Frankie curiously speaks with an accent that’s pure Home Counties — or maybe her lack of the Scots brogue might be explained in later episodes with further revelations from her mysterious past?)
In the imaginary sequence of events whereby my published novel gets adapted for film or TV and then (possibly the most unlikely of this chain of possibilities) the original novel writer got asked for opinions on who should play the female lead then I think I’ve now found a perfect recommendation — so long as she can do a Hochdeutsch accent.
‘Lip Service’ has attracted controversy as it’s a series about the lives of lesbians in Glasgow. Apparently it’s the first British-made series specifically about gay women (as opposed to men) and the programme makers have to address a dilemma in that they want, on the one hand, to portray the women’s lives as being as ‘normal’ as possible (i.e. not contingent on their sexuality). But on the other hand if they’ve created a unique platform for the portrayal of intimate scenes between gay women characters then obviously they feel it’s something that they ought not to shy away from using — and, in my opinion, this is achieved very successfully — frankly (or, perhaps I should say, Frankily) but not salaciously.
I’ve watched the first couple of episodes and it strikes me as it’s quite like a gritty Glaswegian ‘Cold Feet’ with added sex (sex is something I always thought ‘Cold Feet’ could have explored more) — a comparison I mean as a compliment as I liked ‘Cold Feet’, especially the first few series — and it had some great actors in it. Like ‘Lip Service’, ‘Cold Feet’ also uses music effectively — and quite a lot of my writing throws in references to music (the latest extract I workshopped mentioned ‘Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before’ by The Smiths and ‘Big Love’ by Fleetwood Mac — the latter in a slyly filthy context).
I’m interested in that ‘Cold Feet’ genre — tangled relationships between people who are starting to deal with the responsibilities of adulthood — and think that my writing is probably pitched at the same kind of audience.Â The success of David Nicholls’ ‘One Day’ that I read recently and learned quite a lot from (Nicholls wrote some of the scripts for ‘Cold Feet’). The book gets fervent reviews Â on Amazon from the many people who say it’s their favourite ever demonstrates that this is also a commercial genre. I have to say too that David Nicholls is a nice chap as he replied very quickly and politely to an e-mail I sent him about the clever playlist feature he did have on the book’s website — which now seems to have disappeared unfortunately in favour of some of the book’s film adaptation promo material.