guest post from icy sedgwick: visuals in fiction

It can be easy when writing to sometimes fall into the trap of reducing visuals to personal appearance, or a vague nod in the direction of setting. Literary fiction conditions us to primarily consider feelings or moods, and genre fiction devolves into a collection of stereotypes. Some writers use visuals purely to repeatedly tell us how attractive a character is, and other visuals end up standing in for an archetype – witness the number of beefy barbarians or aristocratic vampires. But can visuals play a bigger role, particularly in world building, and help transport a reader into the setting that you’ve imagined, rather than into their own interpretation?
I’m a big fan of set design within films, and I think there is real potential to use set design within novellas too – you’re not just ‘writing’ the setting, you’re ‘designing’ the setting. It involves a little more conscious thought and planning about how rooms or settings will look, and what impact those visuals will have on the reader. Consider the way JK Rowling depicted Dolores Umbridge’s office in Hogwarts – her cutesy obsession with pink and kittens was possibly more monstrous even than her behaviour, but it was a deft touch that helped to make Umbridge even more detestable.
Obviously you don’t want to get carried away with the visuals. If you start describing every single stick of furniture in the room, a reader isn’t going to know what’s pertinent to the story, and they’re also going to switch off from the story after being bombarded with description. Anton Chekov came up with the idea, now known as Chekov’s Gun, that if you hang a gun on a wall in act one, you’d better use it by act three, or audiences (readers in this case) will wonder why it’s there. You want to paint a broad enough picture that readers can ‘see’ the setting, but include enough details to foreshadow future events and give away details about characterisation that’ll save you from having to artificially describe them yourself. A room with peeling wallpaper and damp patches on the ceiling lets us know the inhabitant is slovenly and disinterested in his environment without us having to ever say as much.
The visuals of The Necromancer’s Apprentice are a bit of a mixed bag. The Underground City, where we first meet Jyx, was based very heavily on Mary King Close and the Blair Street vaults of Edinburgh. Picture dank spaces, devoid of natural light, where the air is clogged by the soot from gas lamps and the tall, narrow tenement buildings stretch up into darkness. It’s a Victorian slum, inspired in part by Gustav Doré’s nineteenth-century engravings of Whitechapel, where the alleys are called ‘closes’ because they’re so crammed together. By contrast, the part of the City Above that we get to see as Jyx travels to the Academy is based on Venice, all quiet canals and buildings with white shutters and delicate balconies, where Jyx can see the sky. It seemed a good way to set the two spaces up in contrast with each other, demonstrating the affluence and clean air of one, and the poverty of the other.
Yet that’s not all the visuals are for. True, they make good scene-setting, and people can quickly ‘see’ what sort of locations these are, and they can compare these imaginary locations with ones that they know in order to form connections or draw conclusions. You can also hide clues in the set design that like-minded people will pick up on, giving them a satisfactory ‘a-ha!’ moment when they recognise something in your design. When Jyx reaches the House of the Long Dead where he’ll be working for the necromancer general, he finds a lot of the art painted on the walls features figures drawn flat, in profile, which was my way of referencing Egyptian art. The Wolfkin are descended from Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead, and he later discovers a statue of a man with the head of an ibis in my nod to Thoth, the god of knowledge. On their own, they just add to the set-dressing and help to build an atmosphere, but anyone who shares these interests will spot the references, and it should hopefully enhance their enjoyment of the story.
What about you? What kind of visuals do you like in your stories?

Icy Sedgwick was born in the North East of England, and lives and works in Newcastle. She has been writing with a view to doing so professionally for over ten years, and has had several stories included in anthologies, including Short Stack and Bloody Parchment: The Root Cellar & Other Stories.
She spends her non-writing time working on a PhD in Film Studies, considering the use of set design in contemporary horror. Icy had her first book, a pulp Western named The Guns of Retribution, published in 2011, and her horror fantasy, The Necromancer’s Apprentice, was released in March 2014.