Building Characters


When I first moved up to Norfolk from London I worked in a fascinating archive, The History of Advertising Trust, which has its offices deep in the countryside where real estate is cheaper than the capital. (Archives only ever grow, they never shrink.) Anyway, it was my good luck to happen upon it, because over the years it provided me with a lot of stimulation, sparking my imagination when I was struggling for ideas.

Advertisements are still a favourite source of mine. I love the lateral thinking, the wit, the ingenuity, the nods to popular culture, to classical art and literature, but I have a soft spot for 1980s cigarette ads. In this decade, tobacco companies in the UK were no longer permitted to show actual cigarettes in their advertising, although they were still allowed to promote their products. I’ve never been a smoker, and I’m not endorsing smoking here, but the imaginative and surreal advertising campaigns that resulted from the efforts to circumvent the ban are as fantastic as they are bizarre. Remember the Benson & Hedges pyramids and the Silk Cut scissors? You can see them here:

But how could these curious images help drag my exhausted imagination out of the doldrums?

One particular series of ads was for Winston cigarettes and would have appeared on the London Underground. Because of the ban there are no images of lissom women enjoying cigarettes, no curls of smoke floating irresistibly upwards. The strapline reads simply, We’re not allowed to tell you anything about Winston cigarettes, so here’s something to pass the time.’  But it’s the text that followed that catches the eye.  Picture the scene…

You’re sitting on the train on your way home. You glance at the ad and read, We’re not allowed to tell you anything about Winston cigarettes, so here’s something to pass the time.’  You read the rest of the text and an idea sparks. You take out your notebook, (because you always carry one, don’t you?) and let your imagination go. By the end of the journey you have a serviceable character study…

  • Look at the person sitting opposite you.
  • Just a quick glance. Try not to stare.
  • What do you think they do for a living?
  • How much do you think they earn? 
  • More than you? 
  • Could you do their job? 
  • Think of 5 possible Christian names for them. 
  • And one nickname.
  • Are they married? 
  • Imagine their home. Their furniture. 
  • What do they keep on their mantelpiece?  
  • What colour bathroom do they have?
  • Consider the ANY DISTINGUISHING MARKS section of their passports. What does it say? What should it say? 
  • Where are they heading now? And why? 
  • To meet somebody? Who? For what reason
  • Do they look like they’re late?
  • And if they suddenly leant forward and offered to buy you dinner, what would you do?


I’ve tried this as an exercise with my writing group and it always gets good results. It forces everyone to think a little outside the box and consider alternative character traits. It acts as a catalyst, igniting the imagination and sending it off in unusual directions.

Works every time, often with very interesting results.


16 thoughts on “Building Characters

  1. Hi Maggie, I like the blog and think your exercise above is a good way to jog the imagination.

    But what I’m really commenting about is the fact you worked for HAT. I worked in advertising in the dim and distant past. More importantly, my father – John Allan – worked in the trade, man and boy, ending up as the Creative director of an ad agency called Pembertons (1960s).
    He was a squirrel and kept loads of stuff pertaining to his long career, and after he died my husband and I bundled it all up and made the journey cross-country from Gloucestershire to Norwich and donated the whole caboodle to HAT. That was in 2010. I wonder if you were there then? gx

    • Yes, I was Gilli. How funny. I’d progressed from volunteer to paid employee by then but I was never responsible for receiving new collections – I was on the research and licencing side of things – though I remember the Pembertons name. I confess I don’t remember you coming, but I may have been on leave. It was a fascinating place to work, particularly if you liked ferreting around in old archives, which I did! Maggie x

      • No, I don’t think you were there. They were theoretically expecting us, although the woman at the desk seemed surprised when we pitched up. There were only two staff – I seem to recall she was plump with long hair, but I may have recreated that in my imagination – and she was actually typing up my dad’s biography (which I’d emailed earlier) as we arrived. The other, an older man, who told us he was a volunteer, showed us around the archive. He didn’t recall the name Pembertons – the last of the agencies my dad worked for (after a takeover) but he pulled out a big directory. It fell open, and in the centre of the page was *Pembertons*! All in all a slightly spooky visit. gx

      • Definitely not me then! You probably met the General Manager, now retired. The archive has undergone lots of modernisation in recent times – it used to be a spooky place to work, too! Fascinating archive, a record of the nation’s social, economic and artistic development. Maggie x

  2. Fascinating Maggie, especially as I just posted on my ‘writing process’ as a result of writing well over a thousand words for the first time. I find most of today’s advertising just irritating, lacking the real creativity seen in the past. I suppose that in itself could prompt a story, if only I could bear not to push the ‘mute’ button.

  3. That’s a new way of dreaming up a character, Maggie. Thanks. I used adverts with students when studying emotive language and some of them are so clever. One famous cig ad was too clever and backfired. Their line was ‘ you’re never alone with a Strand ‘ and showed a solitary man with his cigarette. People stopped buying because they didn’t want to seem like a Billy no mates. The Strand name was changed after that, I believe. .

    • We had that ad in the archive, Chrissie. You’re right, it backfired badly when people switched brands. The archive is a reflection of social history, as well as brand names and products, so useful for many areas of study.

  4. After watching a TV commercial, I will often turn to my husband and ask, “What was that actually advertising?” They’re often too opaque for their own good. My dad wasn’t on that side of the business, dealing mostly with print advertising. gx

  5. Fab Maggie, I love this. I do it with headlines on the News or in Papers. It works really well. Thanks for reminding me. Your job sounds as it it was wonderful. What fun.

Leave a Reply to maggiecammiss Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.