You want to write? Dare to dream.

creating-charactersSitting on the decking at our Dartmoor holiday cottage, overlooking a verdant village, on a balmy September afternoon, I chatted across the fence with our temporary neighbour, Janet.  ‘You’ve got to enjoy your work,’ she said.  ‘I loved being a care assistant.  Going home at night knowing that you’d made at least one person smile that day.’

Janet’s a doer.  She’s just finished redecorating her hall, and is about to mow her lawn.  The garden is immaculate, and colourfully planted.  She’s always busy.  Tonight is quiz night, it’s, ‘a bit of a laugh, I go with my sister, she lives in the next village, so I pick her up.  She can’t get about much, with her hips.’

Janet’s a fiction, a character I’m putting together as I write.  She has a story I want to tell, but I don’t know it yet.  The things I do know are accumulating.  Some of them contradict what I thought I knew, and so I’m adapting my ideas.  For instance, her hair has fluffed out from short to long, from neat to artfully dyed and sculpted. Perhaps you think it doesn’t matter about something so superficial, and maybe I won’t be including that information in the final version of the story I write.  But I need to know it.

Janet is not a figment of my imagination, I’m dreaming her into existence.  I care about her, and the things that she cares about, and if I do this well, when I’m finished she may make you smile too.  This evening, when she comes out of the back door, in her black lace blouse, sharp black trousers and her neatly painted face, you will glance up from the Devon Life magazine you’ve been flicking through as you wait for your tea to barbecue, and wave.  ‘Good luck,’ you will call.

Janet will give a cheek-lifting smile, and hurry across the firm dry lawn to ask what’s cooking.  ‘Smell’s good,’ she’ll say, rising on tiptoes to look over the fence. ‘What are you planning for tomorrow?  Weather’s looking kind.’

She’s taking her granddaughter into Exeter in the morning, for a hearing test.  ‘But I expect I’ll see you in the evening.  Don’t get lost on the moor, or go shaking hands with any ghosts.’  Then she’ll adjust her hot pink pashmina around her shoulders and hurry down the garden to her honeysuckle covered car-port.  Her white blonde hair glows in the dusky shadows as she moves round to the drivers door.

From the decking we watch her drive out of the cul-de-sac and onto the narrow lane.

 

 

 

 

Recognising the individual within a pack

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An exercise I often use for creating a character is based on a questionnaire.  It begins by asking for the mundane details of human life: name, age and address, then moves into the personal areas of like, dislike, favourite things, hopes and fears.

I’ve no idea who first realized that forms could have a creative use besides being a boring necessity.  Not me, my tutors all used versions of this when teaching me.

In my turn, I’ve adapted my own variations on theirs, that I set according to which aspect of character formation I’m working on.  For instance, do I want to create a character from scratch, or develop an existing one?

Here, in best Blue Peter style, is an example of a general purpose one:

© Cath Humphris

Twenty Questions on your protagonist.

Character Profile for _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ (full name)
1. Address:
2. Date of Birth?
3. Place of Birth?
4. How does this character occupy most of their time?
5. Who, if anyone, do they live with?
6. How long have they lived like this?
7. What object does your character always carry?
8. What do they most like about their appearance?
9. What do they least like?
10. What does your character do on Thursday nights?
11. What is character’s most valued talent?
12. What is their favourite way to spend holiday time?
13. List three things that make them angry:
14. Describe their favourite clothes?
15. What is their favourite pass-time/hobby?
16. Who are they closest to?
17. What is their favourite extravagance?
18. What is their favoured economy?
19. Describe their most embarrassing memory:
20. What is their secret ambition?

No, don’t groan, trust me.  It can work, even if you start rather flippantly, because clearly the name, and the answers to the first three questions can be plucked from the air.  The trick is to write your answers down, and complete all the questions, even if you have to complete them out of order.

Commit to completing the list and I defy you to not find yourself linking the pieces together.  As the questions become more personal the whys and wherefores build up and a backstory emerges.  This is research.  It’s the bottom of that Hemmingway iceberg theory that is your story.

There are two things that I like to see happen when I do this with a group.  The first is that some of their answers extend beyond the page, either into the margins, onto the back of the handout, or into a notebook.  The second, is when someone has to go back to an earlier answer and rewrite it to make it fit with the answers they’ve made further down.

That’s when I know they’ve hooked into the individuality of their character, and a flat stereotype is becoming individual, and therefore, rounded.