Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Story of Inspiration: Audrey Hepburn and Ms. Wendt

I very rarely have an image of a specific person in mind when I write a character. If I base a character on a person, I usually base that character on myself--not in an autobiographical way, but my main character usually has my outlook on life or a particular interest, etc.

With this last manuscript, there was one character who did have a specific inspiration. Ms. Wendt--the witchy teacher of the kids. And while her teaching style came pretty much from me, there was another inspiration for her:

How can anyone not be inspired by her?

When I thought about this character, the Audrey Hepburn inspiration came gradually. I didn't intend for it to happen. It started with description. I wanted a character who had an almost ethereal beauty, and since Audrey's always been my ideal, I described Ms. Wendt in that way. In my mind, she looked like this:

Audrey Hepburn in the movie Sabrina.

So, my description of Ms. Wendt ended up like this:
Although short, she stood up so straight that she seemed taller. Her close cropped hair framed her pixie face, but although she looked delicate, her eyes held a fierce flash that belied gentleness.
But although Ms. Wendt appears small and gentle (like Audrey), I wanted her to have an element of sadness and sorrow. And then I remembered this:

Breakfast is better with diamonds.

To me, this scene has always been one of the saddest scenes Audrey ever played--because it's sadness without words. You see her longing and sorrow in her face, her eyes, her movement--but she doesn't say it. This is the epitome of show, not tell. When writing Ms. Wendt, I really strove to show her sorrow long before she ever revealed why she was sad. It came out like this:
Belle watched her teacher's face pale for just a moment before her features froze into a perfect smiling mask. ...[later] Something—a look of sadness? Anger?—passed over Ms. Wendt's face.
During revisions, I became aware of how heavily I was using my image of Ms. Wendt as Audrey. I added this scene as a sort of homage to it all:
She looked just like Audrey Hepburn had in Breakfast at Tiffany's, at the beginning of the movie, when Audrey's character ate a bagel in front of the store window of Tiffany's jewelry store, and her stony face tried to hide a deep, almost painful longing for a life she would never, ever have.

In many ways, Audrey Hepburn grew to represent much more than just Ms. Wendt's physical appearance in the novel. In my revisions, I gave the main character, Belle, something of an Audrey Hepburn obsession. I did this for several reasons. By that point, I identified Ms. Wendt so closely with Audrey Hepburn that Belle's obsession with the actress gradually shifted to an obsession with Ms. Wendt--Belle originally wants to be like Audrey, then wants to be like Ms. Wendt. But Audrey represented for both of these characters certain attributes that they both (unconsciously) shared.
Being alone--Ms. Wendt and Belle both consider themselves solitary characters.

Although both Belle and Ms. Wendt feel alone, they also both have a sense of being surrounded by others.
Belle describes it as , "It was as if everyone else was flying, and she was slogging through water."

There is also a sense of giving up things for both characters. Ms. Wendt has given up freedom,
but Belle feels that she is giving up her chance of happiness and magic. There is a bit of the martyr in each.

And finally, each of the two feel a stoic sense of responsibility.
They do the right thing, even though it doesn't feel good.
They don't pretend it's easy or makes them happy--they just do it.

In the end, I don't think that many readers will pick up on how great an influence Audrey Hepburn as both a character and a person made on my work. It's subtle, but things from physical descriptions to motivation to attitude were all influenced to an extent by this amazing woman. This is how inspiration works best for me. If I had gone into the work trying to make Ms. Wendt be Audrey Hepburn or obviously linking together characters' internal attitude to her, I think the work would have been weaker. Because it developed gradually, naturally, it worked much better within my own writing.

So, how about you? What kinds of people/things/places inspire you?
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