We are writers. Our artistic medium is language.Whatever images are involved in our creations are conjured in the imaginations of our readers through the magic of our written words.
That’s why what I’m about to say might seem odd.
I’m not instructing you all to write picture books (but you could… and it would be awesome), even though they are perfect examples of how visual and verbal art compliment one another. However, the relationship between the two goes back much further than the existence of children’s literature, to William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and back further than that to illuminated manuscripts like the Book of Kells. These works reveal the natural relationship between visual and written mediums.
Words and pictures are such a great fit for one another that even works that were not created with illustrations in mind have so caught our imaginations that we keep drawing them–Coleridge’s The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner or Alice in Wonderland for example.
I am suggesting that even if illustrations won’t be a main feature of your published text, you should still draw out your ideas. There are two main benefits of doing so. First, drawing what you write can help you get a sense of your setting, and second, it will help you visualize how your plot and characters progress.
To reap the rewards of these benefits, I suggest three ways to draw what you write.
Charts and diagrams are great. I use them often. Take, for example, this picture of a diagram I drew while writing my dissertation. Turning the abstract concept of growing up into a visual diagram helped me articulate to my readers the arguments I was making about how authors depict that process in their work.
Drawing floor plans have helped me feel more comfortable moving my characters around the spaces they inhabit. Having a visual image of rooms, hallways, and doors, can help your descriptions of space feel more real and believable. If you are visually familiar with a space, your character can demonstrate the kind of familiarity with that space that comes with living inside it. The images I drew just this week have helped me fine tune my descriptions of my protagonist’s movements inside and outside of his home.
Many novels, particularly in the fantasy genre, include maps. Treasure Island, The Hobbit, Peter Pan, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz are just a few well-known examples.
Just as drawing a floor plan helps you understand internal spaces, maps help you figure out the geography of your outdoor settings. Once more, maps will allow you to more clearly depict your characters movements through their landscapes.
But more importantly, drawing a map may help you understand how your plot progresses and how your characters develop.
To see how maps help you develop your plot and characters, draw a map! Then, in a different color, chart your protagonist’s movements back and forth across the landscape. Where does s/he begin? Where does s/he end? What physical landmarks lead to the climax of the novel? Or have bearing on the protagonist’s greatest inner struggle. Through these mappings, you can see how plot and character development complement one another and how one drives the other. Or, you an see where you should revise in order to improve these connections.
As my illustrations make evident, you don’t have to be a talented visual artist to draw what you write. You don’t even have to be very good at drawing at all. All you need is paper and pen. Getting the images out of your head and onto paper, even when your goblins end up wearing footy pajamas, can help make your abstract ideas concrete and enhance the realism of even your most fantastical novels!
And, at the end of the day, you’ll have some crazy rad drawings to share with your friends and to laugh over later when your wonderful, polished work sits on a library shelf.