Category: Courses

Character Questionnaire: Writing Experiment No. 70

On Saturday I led a masterclass on Character and Setting in conjunction with Kellie Jackson of Words Away. It’s the latest in our series of classes intended as a practical, DIY alternative to the craft seminars of an MA/MFA in creative writing. Here is Kellie’s account of the day.

We discussed Olive Kitteridge and Tom Ripley and Ennis Del Mar, and Bridget Jones and that other Singleton, Mary Ann from Tales of the City. We talked about types (heroes, mentors, shapeshifters), and primary identities, and desires and inner conflicts.

We drew cartoon sketches of characters, and maps for them to be placed in. I think there is a great value in bringing nonverbal forms of expression into our writing practice, not least in keeping a check on overthinking. I’m always looking for ways in which writers can develop their writerly intuition, sparking surprises and digging deeper with their characters – their yearnings, their contradictions, their secrets. Which might include some of our own, and some of those of people we know, and some we made up entirely.

As usual: a lot to fit in! And we had a good laugh or two, which is perhaps the most important thing of all. A further bonus came from listening to Christina Macphail of Agatha Christie Limited talking about her career in rights, export sales, and licensing. There were a lot of Agatha Christie fans in the room, and I have already been prompted to return to The Mysterious Mr Quin, which I suspect I might get more from as an adult. An excellent and engaging talk, shedding light on important parts of the publishing business – thanks, Christina! And thanks also to Kellie Jackson for helping organise the day. Some snaps from the day are below.

One fun exercise was creating a collaborative character questionnaire.

Answering questions about a character’s outer identity and inner world is a common exercise in creative writing. There is, of course, a risk that assembling a character out of such details can lead to cookie-cutter writing that gets caught up in representing the facts assembled on a checklist at the expense of telling a story. The result, if we are not careful, is writing cluttered with detail but lacking in heart and momentum. We considered, for example, that cliché of someone looking in the mirror in the first pages of a book as a way of establishing a character, focusing on obvious traits that pin that character down but somehow seem a bit flat or predictable as a depiction.

A conversation about a white lab coat concluded that we in fact need very little description to bring a character to life: the Principle of Sufficiency. We also discussed the importance of defining characters through their speech (dialogue, subtext) and their actions (their plottings) and their perceptions (point of view).

All the same, creating Character Files (and Setting Files) can be productive work in assembling our stories: building a mood board or a scrapbook, saving pics on Pinterest, taking walks in the personality of your character and seeing the world as they do, thinking about who and why and what and how and where and when they are. See, for example, the Character Questionnaire as well as a version of the popular Proust Questionnaire shared by Gotham Writers.

Below is a version of the questionnaire I created, along with other questions generously shared by Saturday’s class; I tasked them particularly on asking questions that probed characters’ miscellaneous particularities and oddities. Such prompts are intended as exercises for exploring your character’s depths and potential, but some of the writing that’s spurred may in fact lead its way into your book.

Give yourself an hour (a good chunk of time), and devote yourself to working through your answers to these questions for your character. Then come back and fill in the gaps you might not have answered immediately. And then do the questionnaire again for other characters. And so on … And do feel free to update at a later date, as your story shifts in its drafting.

Also: please feel free to add questions of your own in the Comments below. Thanks in advance!

Also thanks to everyone who came on Saturday, and made it such an enjoyable day. Our next workshop, Crafting Your Prose, is on Saturday 30 March at London Bridge Hive. There are just a couple of spaces left.

 

Character Questionnaire

Consider the following questions for your characters, not only in the context of their background and history, but also within the timeframe of your story – and beyond.

Outer world

  • What is your character’s name?
  • Does your character have other names, pseudonyms, or nicknames?
  • Describe their appearance: hair, eyes, height, weight, distinguishing features.
  • What is their state of health?
  • What is their family background? And current family?
  • What is their marital/romantic status?
  • What was their social class growing up? And during the course of the book?
  • What is their primary identity/category/type: occupation, gender, sexuality, class, age, religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, region, language, other? (Primary = defining the storyline.)
  • What are any secondary identities/categories that important in defining them?
  • How might your character contradict any types they belong to?
  • What is your character’s dramatic role or function in the story?
  • What problem does your character face within the story?
  • And what question does your character pose to the reader?

 

Inner world

  • What is your character’s personality type? (Outgoing, introvert, obsessive, laid back, etc.)
  • What does your character yearn for?
  • What secrets does your character keep, and from whom?
  • What are your characters’ flaws?
  • What mistakes or poor choices has your character made?
  • What risks has your character taken?
  • What wounds does your character carry?
  • What does your character fear?
  • What are your character’s phobias?
  • What are your character’s prejudices?
  • What are your character’s pathologies? Consider: OCD, anxiety, neurosis, narcissistic, sociopathic, mental health, gossipy, inability to take criticism, etc.
  • What are your character’s politics?
  • What makes your character angry?
  • What brings your character greatest happiness? And how easy is this?
  • What are your character’s passions?
  • What memories continue to shape your character? (Personal as well as cultural/collective.)

 

Misc. behaviours, habits, tastes, oddities (which often reflect both inner and outer worlds)

  • What are your character’s repeated actions? Routines? Tics? Mannerisms? Catchphrases?
  • Does your character have a pet?
  • What is the best gift your character ever received? Ever gave?
  • What direction is your character moving in?
  • What is your character’s favourite … food? … book? … hobbies? … sports? Etc.
  • What is your character’s spirit animal? Their nemesis animal (an animal that represents a character flaw or weakness, e.g., squirrel = scattered and a hoarder)?
  • How does your character sleep?
  • What does your character keep or dispose of when decluttering?

 

Additional questions from Words Away masterclass, 26 January 2019

  • In a stressful situation, would your character be most likely to (a) pray, (b) swear, (c) cry, (d) other?
  • What is their favourite holiday destination?
  • What smell takes your character back to being a child?
  • What is your character’s preferred mode of transport and why?
  • Any tattoos or piercings? What? Where? When? Why? Do they smoke/did they? What? Where? When? Why?
  • How does your character feel about kissing?
  • What is the biggest source of shame for your character and have they ever told anyone about it?
  • Is your character subconsciously trying to impress/gain respect/[insert motivation] their father or their mother? How does this cause/drive conflict in your story?
  • How does your character respond to an unexpected extravagant gift?
  • What action that your character has taken would they change, and what would they do instead?
  • Who was your character in his/her most recent former lifetime?
  • What does your character need/desire and what’s stopping her from getting it?
  • What is your character’s secret fantasy?
  • If your character was a song, which song would it be and why?
  • How does your character act when getting changed at a public swimming pool?
  • How does he/she relax? (I.e., what do they like to do for downtime?)
  • If your character had only two hours to live, who would they spend it with, where, and why?
  • [Insert your own questions below, and invite your friends for their questions too.]

 

 

Spring 2019 Masterclasses: Character & Setting, Prose Style

After a successful masterclass on the Craft of Voice at the end of November, Kellie Jackson of Words Away and I are continuing this series, which began with Plotting in September, with two more masterclasses for the spring term:

Crafting Character & Setting

Crafting Your Prose

Character and setting are the foundations of our narrative content, and on 26 January we shall be exploring ways in which they can be brought to life in ways that propel our stories forward. And the masterclass devoted to prose style on 30 March will look not only at important aspects of grammar and usage (verbs! nouns! the evils of fronted adverbials!), but also explore ways to refine and adapt our voices in writing for a variety of purposes and effects.

More info including booking details at the links above. I have listed provisional schedules for the day as well as some suggestions of readings we might use to bring to life our discussions about craft; we usually email delegates a few weeks in advance with further reading recommendations as well as any other preparations for the class. We shall make time for some short writing exercises in class too, and you’ll also be given handouts and resources so that you can continue your lessons and explorations in craft at home afterwards.

And each day will close with an informal Q&A with an industry professional. This is designed to demystify the publishing industry, and offer practical insights into the business, giving you chance to ask your own questions. Our guest speaker on 26 January is Christina Macphail of Agatha Christie Limited, who has a great range and depth of experience in selling books and rights in both adult and children’s publishing – intellectual properties she has sold include many much-loved characters, so it will be interesting to place our creative conversations about character and world-building into this wider commercial context.

The last masterclass filled up in about ten days, and we had a long waiting list, so if you are interested I suggest you book in advance. We hope to continue with a couple of other classes in the summer term, and should there be interest to repeat this sequence in 2019/2020 too.

Masterclasses on Plotting and Voice: 29 September and 24 November 2018

A quick break from my summer break to say that we’re now taking bookings for the craft masterclasses that I’m running this autumn with Kellie Jackson of Words Away. These are one-day courses held on Saturdays at London Bridge Hive:

* The Craft of Plotting, including guest speaker Nick Ross, production director of Little, Brown, on Saturday 29 September 2018

* The Craft of Voice, including guest speaker Jenny Savill, director and agent at Andrew Nurnberg Associates, on Saturday 24 November 2018

More info on my Events page or via the links above, where you can also book, and Kellie and I will do a Q&A giving a few more details shortly, but in brief: these masterclasses are designed as overviews of important aspects of craft that will make your writing stronger. I’d like to think that they could be made into part of your own personally assembled and self-paced DIY MA in creative writing, or maybe used as a refresher or extension for some course you’ve already done.

Places are already being booked – over half the spaces for the plotting workshop have already been taken. We are thinking of others for 2019 – maybe prose style, character and setting, and once again revising. I’m also planning some other workshops of a different type at another location – more on that soon, I hope.

Hope your summer is going well. Have been loving the heatwave, even if the garden is a bit singed. Hot tip, if you’re in London: go and see Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up at the V&A. It’s one of the most well-curated exhibitions I’ve seen in some time, and Frida herself is so inspiring. We are our own muses, et cetera. Related to that, my big fat summer read is The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, which is turning out to be everything I want in a big fat summer read: engrossing, taking me into other worlds and other lives. A big thank you to Barbara Kingsolver.

Back to my break – and to my reading!

Workshops Spring and Summer 2018: Everyday Magic / The Craft of Revising

I’m excited to be running workshops with Kellie Jackson of Words Away again: one we ran before, and a new one.

On 21 April 2018, we’ll run Everyday Magic: The Four Elements of Creativity, which sold out when we ran it in November – here’s a link about that day, and here’s an interview I did with Kellie about its approach. It’s designed to help writers work intuitively by using the four elements: fire, water, earth, and air. I love introducing these ideas – it’s such a straightforward concept, but one that can really help writing come to life.

On 23 June 2018, The Craft of Revising is a workshop devoted to self-editing for writers. Focusing on the ways in which we Create, Craft and Connect our writing, our approach will be intuitive and practical, challenging yet generous. We’ll start with an overview of how editors edit, talking briefly about developmental editing, structural editing, line editing, copyediting and proofreading. During the rest of the day, we’ll discuss matters of craft and intention, conduct some experiments on our own work, and in small groups share and edit samples of writing. You’ll leave with a revision plan that includes plenty of tools and inspirations for refining a work-in-progress, whether that’s a novel, a novella, or short stories; it should also be useful for writers of memoirs or other narrative forms too. We’ll conclude the day with a Q&A with Lennie Goodings, Chair of Virago Press and an award-winning editor who’s worked with many much-loved authors.

Follow the link below to booking pages and further information:

* Words Away workshops

The events will again be held at London Bridge Hive1 Melior Place, London SE1 3SZ.

Everyday Magic Workshop, 18 November 2017

On Saturday I led a workshop called Everyday Magic: The Four Elements of Creativity in conjunction with Words Away. It was the first time that I had done this workshop as a day-long event, and I was also particularly excited to teach a Four Elements workshop in London for the first time; a peculiar and unexpected thrill came from teaching something that I am passionate about in the city that I love. Totally in my element! And maybe after all London is finally my home town.

I was very pleased with how the day went. A super bunch of writers came – many of them very experienced and published writers, and all of them passionate and engaged. Through readings and discussion, we freed up our writing by seeking out and activating the four elements of Fire, Water, Earth and Air. Much of the work involves making space for our Observing Minds, giving our Thinking Minds a rest and not worrying about judgment and outcome. I am a big believer in drafting, but the editing comes later. For now: create! Generate writing, and let sparks fly.

We put this into practice with some fun exercises too. The idea of play is important, which might involve some relearning, or unlearning. I especially enjoyed the pass-around stories, which proved how shiny and brilliant writing can be if we create conditions that let ourselves be spontaneous; the collaborative element also makes them good exercises in letting go of attachments.

London Bridge Hive was an excellent space for a class.

We all need our own writer’s shrine, and here was our impromptu one for the day.

We also all need our own Little Mys, or trickster spirit guides. (Though maybe not the sweater vest and scarf next time?! And maybe not clutch the back of that chair quite like Larry Grayson?! Shut that door!)

I produced a little pamphlet of exercises and inspirations …

… as well as some bookmarks. Maybe I’ll become a bookmark publisher.

Among others, that quote from John Keats and another from Zadie Smith came up in our discussion:

It was a long day, but we all kept going, and you know what they say about time flying … Thanks to everyone who came and made this such an enjoyable day.

And special thanks to the wonderful Kellie Jackson of Words Away for helping get this event off the ground. We hope to run this workshop again in the new year, and are thinking about holding some others. Contact Kellie via Words Away to express your interest – and also to take a look at some of the guests at their forthcoming salons. See you there!

(Update: we are running this workshop again on Saturday 21 April 2018 – more information here.)