28 January 2015

Wednesday Writing Prompt #8

It's one thing to spring a story from a single given line, but a single given line does not a story make. It is the characters who inhabit that line, who build it as they breathe, that brings that line, that story, to life for the reader.

So how do you build a character? Give him a limp? Give her a giggle? A blue hat? A Bentley motor car?

Are pictures being created in your mind from the images offered? Can you see these people moving? Turning to look at you?

What you are seeing in your mind’s eye is a stereotype, a shorthand sketch, an amalgamation of all your experiences: lived, read and viewed on-screen. These may be good for a walk-on part, but they’ve hardly got the solidity of a character who can face moral dilemmas and act on decisions in consequence. Such characters, such people, are not made as if a patchwork quilt, they are forged through their own experiences, their own emotional make-up.

This means knowing the character, the person, from the inside out, not seeing them from the outside and trying to discern what on the inside makes them tick. It’s not a simple enterprise and it takes time but, for a character destined to carry a novel, I would suggest it is a necessity.

To give a glimpse of the difference such planning can provide, I offer a workshop exercise:

  • Physically build a person: height, age, hair colour, eye colour, weight, complexion, gender. That’ll do; it’s enough. Give this person a name. Give this person an identical twin, including the same name: XXa and XXb.
  • Give them something simple to do. A logical sequence works well: get out of bed, make breakfast, get ready for work, leave the building.
  •  Make XXa an affable, cheery, glass-half-full sort of person, and make XXb an unsociable, disgruntled, glass-half-empty sort of person.
  • Write the same sequence from each persona.

It shouldn’t take long, maybe 250-500 words, but it could prove an eye-opener.

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