In my previous article, “Where Visual Art and Creative Writing Meet” the projects I described were equally balanced between visual art and writing. Some of the stories came out of drawings or doll-making. Some drawings were inspired by the stories. Since then my focus has shifted away from visual art and toward writing. The written stories have claimed a larger share of my attention.
Drawing became a tool to help me write.
I’m not sure why this happened. Even when drawing was my main form of expression I liked the pictures that hinted at a story. Characters would pop out of the page unplanned. For example, the Gun Fairy and the rather bad tempered Dragon Princess below.
Those two seem to have stories to tell, don’t they?
When I did those drawings, I hadn’t started writing fiction yet. It is much easier to conjure up the idea of a story, than to actually tell it. This is a phenomenon called the “mystery box”. It’s easier to suggest an air of mystery and adventure with a description of a closed box, than to sustain that same excitement when the box is opened and unpacked. I wonder if any story I could tell would be as satisfying as the adventures these two drawings hint at.
When I started writing fiction I didn’t want to let go of my identity as a visual artist. My first books were illustrated, and while I planned the story I drew the characters to help me visualise them. Those drawings became part of the books. For example, here is the very first sketch I made of the gardags (cyber dogs) that became such an important part of my Linked Worlds trilogy. This was for my book The Story Trap which featured a gardag too:
Some of these drawings became illustrations included in the books, like these three drawings from my book The Broken Path. The one below depicts the very pregnant Miss Mouse, a creature from a folk tale. She accidentally crossed over into our world.
A witch contemplates the koi pond in her garden as she decides how best to deal with the pollution humanity has created.
And this is one of my more disreputable characters, Hare, who went off the rails living on the streets of Cape Town.
As my books became more complex my focus moved away from illustration but I still drew the characters, to help me figure out who they were. Planning a book can be hard work and drawing helped me get my mind out of the well-worn ruts to solve story problems and plot holes.
The drawings below are all characters drawn for Crooks & Straights and Wolf Logic. Some of them, like the garden goblin third from the top never made it into the books, but all of the others did.
For my next three books, The Babylon Eye, The Real, and The Strange, I moved away from drawing for a while. I continued to draw as part of my planning process, but I wasn’t happy with anything I did. I’m not sure why this happened.
I’m working on a new book now. It’s set in a completely different story universe to any of my previous books. It’s a science fiction / fantasy crossover that deals with sentient artificial intelligence, fairy tales and ancient legends. There are many points of connection between those ideas. Autonomy and slavery, control of information and dangerous secrets.
For inspiration, I went back to drawings I did years ago, inspired by legends of the Inuit sea-deity Sedna, and the story of Bluebeard. Both of these stories are about disobedient women who are punished for their wilfulness. Also, they involve a certain amount of dismemberment, which fits with ideas I am exploring, about sentient AI with modular personalities that can be divided and combined again.
I’ve done some character sketches too. These came out rather differently than I imagined they would, but that also helps me make decisions about the characters.
Character description for Maksim:
Maksim is reserved, but comes across as easy-going. He has learnt to protect himself from extreme emotions. He doesn’t commit himself openly to strong opinions or passions. He fits in, is friendly to everyone but doesn’t expose himself to any possible rejection.
He makes judgements about people, but keeps those judgements to himself. He initially seems more mature and experienced than Io.
Maksim is compassionate and empathetic. He’s the kind of person who has many acquaintances, but few or no close friends.
Maksim is interested in people, and he’s got that rare quality that when you talk to him, he makes you feels that you’re the only person worth paying attention to. He makes you feel safe. Maksim has a temper but it isn’t easily roused.
Maksim is guarded, gentle, and observant.
Character description for Io:
Io is well meaning, big-hearted, but socially clumsy. She desperately wants to help people and do good, but she’s also very aware of every time she fails. She can be blind to how she comes across, but she has enough self-knowledge to understand just how much she fails. Her biggest fear is being a disappointment.
She has big feelings, and no filter, tends to say what she thinks.
Io is bright but she doesn’t know how limited and naive her worldview is. As a result, instead of just observing people how they really are, she tends to try to fit them into her own pre-existing categories and she gets annoyed with them when they don’t quite fit.
Io has the rare quality of being willing to change herself if somebody points out that she’s got something wrong. She’s proud, so she doesn’t easily take criticism, but she’s honest, so the criticism keeps nagging at her till she accepts it and tries to do whatever is needed to “fix” what is wrong.
Io is naive, earnest, and fierce.
I cannot share Lady Onyx’s character description as that would be a spoiler!
I’m still working on the first draft of this book. As a matter of fact, I’m at the point where I usually get stuck, about two thirds through. This is where I have to start gathering together all the story strands and figure out how to pull them through to the ending I have planned. It’s tough! Lots of tea and chocolate is being consumed while I struggle with my plotting problems 🙂
I always promise myself that my next book will be simple and straight-forward.
And yet I have somehow ended up with a story that is told from two points of view (Io and Maksim are my main characters), and with two apparently separate story-lines, one of which takes place in a virtual, computer generated world that has a slightly different time-flow from the rest of the plot. Not quite so simple! Maybe, one day, I’ll manage to write a story that doesn’t require rainbow colour coding while it’s still in the planning stage.
Masha du Toit
Masha du Toit writes fantasy and science fiction, set in alternate world South Africa. She trained as a visual artist, majoring in sculpture and went on to study bronzecasting. After many years teaching the creative use of digital technology, she finally focused on her true passion: writing her own stories. She's inspired by all kinds of magic, from the worlds of Hayao Miyazaki, Ursula Le Guin and CJ Cherryh, to those of James Herriot and Gerald Durrell.