Visual vignettes for character and plot genesis

I write some of my best work as vignettes. When I conceptualize events that happen in a story, I build focused scenes with a certain mood and destination in mind. I extrapolate from there to make the scene.

vignette: a brief evocative description, account, or episode

Oxford Dictionary of English/New Oxford American Dictionary

There are other ways I have used the hyperfocus of my conceptual designs. Inspired by trendy social media posts, I’ve taken images and superimposed text on them. No, they’re not meme-style image macros—they are a visual vignette, a window that bridges this world with a slice of a fictional counterpart’s life. It was first an idea for an ad campaign for a story, but it became a method to iterate on existing ideas and solidify the mental ideal of my characters.

Some later vignettes drove genesis of character and plot themselves. Thus, I began leveraging them to explore new ideas. Many of the vignettes began while exploring Unsplash. When I see a photo that piques my interest or is evocative or resembles a scene already in my head, I’ll add a quote from a relevant character to it. In a case of a character spawned from one of those quotes, Ojo began life purely as the mouthpiece of a quote which explained how she arrived at her craft—without name, gender, or biography.

A God's eye-like creation with text superimposed. The text reads,
Fig. 1: A “visual vignette” of Ojo.

Ojo is the name the locals know because of her backstory (and because I have yet to actually give her a name, one of the hardest parts of writing, Ojo is here for the time being). Ojo’s past is complex but she has arrived at a (mostly) peaceful station in life. She crafts God’s eyes (Ojo de Dios) for an income.

These objects represent providence’s universal sight. They are generally made of two perpendicular rods on which yarn is interwoven. (I have seen similar objects made with more rods, like in the above photo, but I don’t know if those are considered “true” God’s eyes.)

I built on that quote as if the anonymous mystery entity Ojo were being interviewed about her choice in craft:

I tried to be a Buddhist monk for a while. I once made a mandala, but little did I know that part of the semiotic appeal of a mandala is their destruction to symbolize the temporary nature of all things. I wanted to ask them, “Have you ever said something wrong on the Internet?” Of course, most of them have never used the ’net. But my point is if other things can haunt you forever, why destroy the things that bring you comfort or security or pleasure? Whether you believe it is an eye of a god or the god or something else entirely, the only time I feel comfortable in a foreign land is when the God’s eye my father made for me is hung on the wall of my bedroom. So I make God’s eyes instead of mandalas. And that’s where I got my nickname.

Craftswoman “Ojo” on her preference for making God’s eyes over the mandalas of the Buddhist tradition.

Some Buddhists create mandalas, beautiful radial patterns of colored sand. In an instance I’ve seen of this art, the mandalas were finished and poured into the river to symbolize the temporary nature of all things. That image and symbology stuck with me, and this photo reminded me of it.

Simple recall, though, is nothing special. Why did she choose this product over mandalas? What if she disagreed with a fundamental reason for their existence? Creating a character opposed to something, especially when opposed to something normal or seemingly inconsequential, then explaining why they oppose it can yield interesting results.

Try it yourself

Find a photo that fits the mood of your story. Imagine if the subject was your character, or what your character would say about the photo’s subject, setting, or otherwise-evoked property.

This post contains works of fiction.