At the Egg last Saturday we conducted an exercise designed to create interesting rounded characters quickly.
You start out with a blank piece of paper. You write the numbers from one to twenty at the side of the page, then answer these questions quite quickly, without thinking too hard about them, and without censoring yourself. The result is usually surprising real and interesting characters.
We did it at the Nuts & Bolts workshop in the Egg, and got some really great results. Workshop participants asked for copies of the questions asked, so here they are.
- How old is this person?
- What is their sex?
- What is their ethnicity (this can incorporate race, religion, or any tribal loyalty or identity)?
- When does this person live (I encouraged people to stick with their own time, but your character can live in Elizabethan times or 500 years in the future if you like)?
- Where does this person live - a house, flat, castle, cave: what country or city?
- Who, if anybody do they live with - family, friends, a dog?
- What is the first thing you would notice about this person if you met them on the street or at a party?
- Have they got any particular talent, skill or accomplishment?
- Name a secret that this person has, large or small.
- What has it got in its pocketses - name an object that this person usually carries with them. (And while we're on the subject - does this person carry this thing in its pockets, or has he or she got a wallet, a handbag, a rucksack, a duffel bag?)
- What is this person's greatest shame?
- Who do they love most in the world?
- What is their most valued possession?
- Write down an ambition they have.
- What is the first quality a friend would mention when describing this person?
- What is the first thing this person themselves would mention?
- Name something they are proud of.
- Name a talent or quality they wish they had.
- Write down something which people get wrong about this person, a false impression they often give.
- Lastly: think of something else, that you could not have known about this person at the beginning of this exercise, but which, given the character you have created, makes sense.
Oh, and while we're at it, why not give them a name, for God's sake?
Another exercise involved choosing an object, a location and an emotion. I got participants to pick from a list or to choose their own.
The idea then was that by being constrained to connect object, place and emotion participants would come up with narratives to incorporate all three. It's amazing how people seem naturally to find a shape to accommodate any three.
Just choosing at random - mirror, campsite, sexual jealousy - I find myself conjuring up, without thinking about it, a story about a boyfriend who becomes suspicious of his girlfriend because who needs a mirror on a camping trip - who is she trying to impress...?
Another - bottle, monastery, pathos - suggests a monk in an abbey, becoming a secret alcoholic, dependent on the beer made by his brothers, who in spite of the supposed closeness of the community, fail to see their brother's desperate loneliness.
Birdcage, theatre, doubt - an aging diva sees in a birdcage the image of her theatrical career, and calls into question her whole life's work. (Quite camp, that last one.)
I think any one of those could make a good story (I like the first one best) and they all came without thinking too hard from the random association of things from the list.
(Incidentally, one very important story element which these exercise do not address is change. We'll deal with that in another posting.)