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Writing Authentic Characters & the Artifice of Cindy Sherman

I went to the Cindy Sherman exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art last week. It was truly fabulous. If you’re a writer and you don’t know who she is or about her work, I strongly urge you to check her out. As a writer myself, and as someone who edits and represents others’ writing, I find Cindy Sherman’s body of work fascinating, inspiring and even instructive.

I think that one of the challenges in creating believable characters, dialogue and voice in writing is not only to choose the right words, so to say, but also to achieve authenticity. My Mac-tionary/Macthaurus thingy that looks up words for me on my laptop says that authenticity means “of undisputed origin; genuine.” So when building characters and crafting the words that come out of their mouths, usually the idea is for them to be three dimensional, to be undisputedly who we are creating them to be. To be authentic.

For over 30 years Cindy Sherman has been photographing herself, posed, styled and dressed as types and characters of people. One of the things that makes her work brilliant, I think, is that she manages to climb inside her subject and is then able to project something out to the viewer, while simultaneously being the photographer and having the ability to capture that something.

As writers, we kind of have the same task. We need to be able to climb inside each of the characters we are creating, and then have them speak their words, take their actions, be part of a story. And I think a good writer doesn’t merely do this only for the main character. When we craft our characters from the outside, looking in, they just don’t read as authentic. What Cindy Sherman achieves in her work, because she is both photographer/stylist and model, is to highlight that discrepancy between who a character thinks they are and who and what we, as the lookers, actually see.

When you build a character or write dialogue, rather than writing it how you might hear it, try writing it how you might say it. Climb inside them to perform their actions. Then, after you’ve written, have someone read it to you and then listen. I think a shift in perspective like this is invaluable. It is inhabiting your characters. It is being the photographed and the photographer.

All of the above photographs are by and of Cindy Sherman, in the current MOMA exhibit which runs until June 11, 2012.

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