Tag Archives: character development

Finders Keepers

I’ve been dreaming up some writing exercises and trying to suss out which one I want to post first.  And then it dawned on me…what last happened in my own life to make me pick up a pen with a sense of urgency?

It was a found object.  I literally found a ring in the gutter on one of my night-time walks around the neighborhood.  It’s engraved inside and out, and seems to have once been cherished by someone…so what was it doing in the gutter?

I put a lot of internet snooping into finding the owners of the names engraved inside the ring.  As luck would have it, the combination of these two fairly unique names resulted in a couple who no longer seem to be together.  Which is sad, of course… I found a picture of them together.  They might have been high school sweethearts.  It seems that their paths diverged at least four years ago, though.

And then I began to wonder how this ring came to be in the gutter of my neighborhood some four years after these folks parted ways.

So.  I began to write.

It seems like the perfect exercise to me.  What would you do if you found such an item?  What IS the story?  Or, bring your own found object to the exercise and use it as a jumping off place into a new story, or as a character building exercise by writing from the point of view of one of your characters…what would s/he do with a found ring? A found…key, pocketwatch, shoe, sweatshirt, pen?…It can be anything!  OR have one of your characters be the one who lost, threw away, or intentionally left behind this object of curiosity.

So many possibilities!  I might start this exercise over again to go into another story already in the works.  Hm…exciting!

Good luck!

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What Lola Wants…

Maybe this is particular to a certain subset of the population, but I know more than one person who has another name for who they become when they are…er…drunk.

One friend becomes “Dwayne,” a bullish, brute of a redneck.  Another turns into “Kitty,” who purrs and swishes an imaginary tail.  And me?  Well, I’m Lola.

And it’s definitely a farce for me.  I don’t get so drunk that I don’t KNOW that I’m pretending to be Lola.  Lola who has red hair (even though mine is really blonde) and speaks in a terribly hit-or-miss (and shame on me, stereotypical) Puerto Rican accent.  Who dips her fingers into other people’s drinks (usually just my significant other’s), and dances way more provacatively than I ever would.  Who sometimes bums a cigarette from a perfect stranger and takes a few puffs, but mostly lets it burn down,  so she can flick ashes like punctuation marks in her conversations.  Ha ha, right?  Ahem.

But Dwayne, he borders on being my friend’s alter ego.  Like a “Jeckyll and Hyde” alter ego.  Like “The United States of Tara” alter ego.  Dwayne likes to fight.  My friend does not.  Dwayne likes to smash things.  My friend has zero idea how his knuckles got busted up.  Dwayne doesn’t talk much.  My friend makes a living by talking.  Okay, so my friend might have a drinking problem, but it is still interesting how much a person can change “under the influence.”

This scenario can lead to a variety of exercises…here are the ones that come to my mind:

  1. Who is your alter ego? (If you don’t have one, make one up now!)  Who are they and what do they do that is different than you?  What does this “person” do that you would never do?  Create a new character based upon this “alter.”
  2. Does one of your characters behave differently when they are “under the influence?”  Do they transform into a monster or a pussycat?  Do they like to drink?  Do they never drink?  Why or why not?  Or, conversely, are they even more themselves when imbibing.
  3. Create a situation where a character encounters a Dwayne or Kitty.  Are they amused, frightened, disgusted, indifferent?  Do they set up Dwayne to get into a fight?  Do they play along with Kitty and her imaginary tail?  Are they completely bewildered, demanding that the “real” person answer them?  Does the “real” person oblige, or continue to hide behind Dwayne’s fist or Kitty’s purr?

Have fun with this one.  Use one or more of these exercises to explore a new character or create conflict in a scene.  Deepen a relationship between two characters, or create a giant rift.

Lola is off to paint her nails, now (I have a date for Valentine’s Day).  Good luck!

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Food for Thought

If you have read “Like Water for Chocolate,” by Laura Esquivel, or “Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously,” by Julie Powell, or “The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brien, or…I could just keep going…you know how important food can be to a story.  We have it around us every day, we all have our partiuclar favorite dish, idiosyncratic flavor combinations, and favorite (or least favorite) family recipes.  If your house is anything like my house, the food I make is what makes it smell like “my” house.

Since taste and smell are two of the five senses, including a food description in a scene can help bring it alive and place your reader into your story.  This is a good way to “show, don’t tell” that will make most scenes more relatable.  You can also set mood and tone with cooking smells and flavors.  You can explain a whole culture by its food.  And you can use it in negative or positive ways.  Too much, too little, too rich, too salty, or…just perfect.

For an exercise, put food in a scene.  It can be prominent or mere background.  It can be the focus of a character’s emotion, or a way that two characters relate to one another.  It can be life or death.

  • If you have trouble finding your way into this one, try thinking about a favorite food from your childhood and how that food made the moment perfect–how do you react now when you have, or even just smell, that same food today?
  • Or, think about your favorite food now.  Do you go the distance to make it perfect for yourself?  Or do you make a special trip to that restaurant to get it once a week?  What would happen if you introduce this deliciousness to someone else?  Would they think you are crazy for liking it?  Would they share your enthusiasm and demand the recipe?  Would you share it?
  • Or, think about a trip you took and how the food made it an even exceptional experience, or how the food ruined everything for you.  What did it smell like?  Where where you?  Why was it so amazingly good or bad?  What did you find yourself “homesick” for?

Bon appetit!

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Gone Missing

Your character has been kidnapped!

What is his/her first reaction?  Is it a scary situation or just confusing?  Maybe it was a pleasant aside that turned sinister, or maybe your character knows the kidnapper and doesn’t even realize what is happening?

Try to create a beginning, middle, and end to the situation…if it ends.  Does the character lose his/her identity or sense of what is real?  Does s/he dream about her “real” life?  Does your character try to escape?  How? 

Or…switch it…

Your character has kidnapped someone!  Who? Why?  What happens?

Even if you don’t use this writing exercise in a story, thinking about your character’s reactions and choices can really help shape them into a more “real” entity with a better-defined personality.  And, if you can really take yourself into such a scenario, you might just have a new story on your hands! Good luck!

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Desire Defines Us

Advice from a master

It keeps me up at night…trying to figure out what a character wants.  They are born and living only in my brain until I relinquish them to the world at large.  I think this snippet of advice from Mr. Vonnegut is true.  And as simple as it sounds, actual human beings are pretty complex and often times have no idea what they really want.  Our friends may be better at knowing what we want than we do ourselves.  I say I want a different job, but what do I *really* want?  More money? More security? To be my own boss?  To not have anyone to tell me what to do? Freedom?

Consider what your character(s) want/s.  If it isn’t clear to you, workshop that character until they have it:  desire.  For something…anything.  If they do already “want” something and it is something simple (like a glass of water), why is this simple thing so important?  Does your character get what they want or not?  Do they even understand this about themselves, or are they, like most of us, oblivious to this driving force?  If they DO get it, is it everything they hoped it would be?

After pondering these questions…write for 15 minutes and see where you, and your character, end up.  Good luck!

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“Write What You Know”

From Astrophel and Stella, 1591

I cross-stitched this in fancy script once upon a time.  Framed and matted, it hung over my bedside table so I would see it when I woke up in the morning and when I went to bed at night.  What a sappy romantic, right?

It reminds me that I have something important to write, and where to look to find my source.  And I don’t mean that in a lovey-dovey way, of course.  One of the things you will hear from other authors and teachers is to “write what you know.”  When I was younger, I had a real problem with that advice because I was at least self-aware enough to understand that I didn’t know much.  And how do sci-fi, fantasy, crime thriller, etc. writers write what they know when what they want to write about requires time-travel or alternate universes or to BE a murderous phychopath?  And if I’ve had a pretty crappy life, that is quite frankly, the LAST thing I want to be writing about. 

For me, it means, “write your truth.”  And when you strip your life’s experiences down to the nuts and bolts, whatever this life has taught you is what you should be writing about.  Of course, you can apply it literally, which will add the richness of first-hand experience to your craft, but again, that is because it is true. 

For me, these truths are stored in my heart, and that is where I should look when I am wondering, “what do I write next?”

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To Every Season…Turn, Turn, Turn

It seems, as I get older, I both enjoy the seasons and despise them. 

I like the way the light starts to shift in early autumn–it makes me see the late summer greening that happens in Texas in a different way.  It’s a melancholy wistfulness that takes over me…remembering times from my childhood when I spent these days playing in the woods and romping through fields after school and all weekend long.  When a day somehow stretched beyond itself.  

One day it will seem like “fall has arrived” and the next will seem like “it’s spring again.”  We will get a good chill in the air, overcast days with damp, blustery breezes, and the heavier blankets come out and windows get opened at night.  I can start making soup and chili again (with a pan of hot cornbread to go with it, yum yum)…and then along comes an Indian Summer and everything gets put away/shut again…I can’t drink enough iced tea to stay cool.  Of course, living in Central Texas, the changes here aren’t as pronounced as they are in more northern regions, and we usually always have cycles of warm/cool as opposed to straight cold through to March.   

The pecans have started falling, and I have taken the kids gathering.  East/Central Austin is densely populated by big, well-established pecan trees, so they are free for the picking on school grounds, at several parks, in parking lots, and all over the streets and sidewalks.  One time we went picking pecans, we were all layered in hoodies and jeans, but the next time we were in shorts and flip-flops and the boys wanted to take their shirts off because it was so hot.  It is an odd, shifting dance, this, a Texas autumn.

And I do look forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years, so there are the coming festivities.  Peppermint mochas and pumpkin spice lattes are back at Starbucks.  Shopping will become a passtime, the gift-giving a happy/fun/excitement that shines in everyone’s faces.   All of those gathered pecans will be made into pies, cakes, candies, and such.

So…what’s not to like? 

The obvious passing of time.  The shortened, dark days.  Being cold.  Having to wear so many dang clothes that it necessarily multiplies the laundry chores.  Dry skin.  The unrequited craving for a beach trip that would allow me to actually get in the water.  Wishing the drab, dreary brown could be green again.  Hearing those less-than-joyous opinions/attitudes during the holidays–nobody can be happy all the time, sure–but those people who are actively harsh on the cheer of the season…oh, they wear me down, and I just want it all to be over…back to “normal.”

But the real thing is the dark.  I love the night, but I don’t want it starting at 5:30…that’s still daytime.  I feel…pressured…to get all of my daytime stuff done before the sun sets, because after the sun sets, that’s when I need to think about writing and being creative.  If I still have to deal with chores and errands and cooking and cleaning and going to the grocery store and sports practices…blah, blah, blah…how do I set to paper all the background thoughts that are whirring away in my mind?  It is a constant sense of “do it” stacked on top of “not right now” that happens every day for almost half of the year.  During the Spring/Summer months, I can do all of my “life stuff” before the sun sets and THEN it’s time to write.   It’s nice and clear cut.   In the Fall/Winter, it gets all messy in my head.

So.  How to unmussify?  I have thought about this long and hard, and I have decided it must be managed.  No more excuses like “it’s cold and dark, I have to do the dishes, and the laundry, etc., and now I’m too tired, and it’s time for bed.”  That’s pretty lame.  And I know what I am going to do:

Make a plan!

1.  Enjoy the good parts of the seasons changing.  Hooray for Peppermint Mochas!

2. Make time for your vocation everyday, no matter the season, no matter the day. 

3. Stop making excuses and get down to the nitty gritty!  Roll up your sleeves (or put on your pajamas), and get to freaking work already.

AND so, it comes time to think about a writing prompt.  I think a good one, given my personal discontent with the shortening days, is to include the details of the season in the setting of a scene.  Capturing all the sense details…sights, scents, sounds, tastes, how things feel to the touch…specific to the season will really “solidify” and paint the scene/setting in which your characters are operating.  Also, consider a feature of characterization:  How does your character feel about long days? Snow? Holidays?  The only caveat I will put next to this exercise is to make sure you are “showing” and not “telling,” and don’t let too many details bog down the flow of your writing.

Good luck!

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