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.
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.
- 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?
- 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.]