Building Characters

character

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:   http://www.hatads.org.uk/catalogue/search.aspx?titleType=Print%20Advertising

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.

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Lost for Words? Look no further…

AlbumsAfter the death of my father some years ago I became the curator of the family photographs. Dad and Mum had collected them throughout their lives, stuffed individually and often anonymously into boxes and biscuit tins or mounted and labelled carefully in old leather-covered albums. There’s my older brother’s baby book, framed wedding photographs, wallets of holiday snaps from unknown destinations and hundreds of single images of who knows who. Sometimes there’s a scrawled name on the back, but often there are no clues about the identities of the individual or group of people caught in fading sepia.   Continue reading

Another Life. How regression helped my creativity

pearlsWe fiction writers already know how life experiences can inform our creativity. How getting lost in an unfamiliar town or eavesdropping on a quarrel can ignite that light bulb; how the unexplored stretch of coastline or narrow, unmapped street can form the basis of a whole new storyline.

But what about experiences that aren’t part of this life? I don’t mean being abducted by aliens…  I mean a different, altogether other-worldly event.

Let me explain. Continue reading

Character Reference

passports1

I’ve just had my passport photograph updated – who is that woman? She looks like she’s had an interesting life – it’s certainly left its mark. Which ties in nicely with this week’s theme – creating characters.

People-watching can be very fertile ground and there are plenty of opportunities for observing personality traits and characteristics in colleagues, friends and total strangers in the course of your working life and leisure activities.

I’ve been lucky to work in some colourful and exciting environments, full of large than life personalities, who transfer easily onto the page, albeit with a little tweaking. Here are some possibilities for you to consider: Continue reading

Kick-starting the Imagination

Sourdough

 

 

 

 

 

 

I know where I’ve gone wrong – the starter wasn’t active enough (I know just how it feels). Bear with me, though; this does have a correlation of sorts with the writing process. I’m attempting to make sourdough bread and this mini disaster has got me thinking about the similarities between baking and writing. I’m not an experienced or intuitive bread maker and I’ve never made sourdough before.The first thing I need is some ‘starter’. And this is where the comparison with writing comes in. As with sourdough, writing can also benefit from the addition of a starter that we’ve already got on the shelf – in the form of ready-made plot ideas. As I kneaded the dough I mentally listed a selection of plot devices and strategies to kick-start my imagination and help my creative writing. Some are quite specific, others more general, but all these scenarios can be played out in various ways – how you do it is up to you. Continue reading

Stuck for Words?

It’s not often that I’m at a loss for words but sometimes my imagination goes temporarily awol when I’m supposed to be creating a coherent piece of writing. Staring at that blank page can be daunting so I thought it might be handy if we revisited some tricks for waking your writing mojo.

Remember those six honest serving-men from Kipling’s Elephant’s Child: What? Where? Why? Who? When? How? They help us evaluate every situation and character and once we’ve got past the seemingly obvious questions about who the character is, what they are doing and how they come to be doing it, we can widen our scope and pose other questions that reveal different facets and characteristics and help us build up a character, a situation, maybe a story.

Continue reading

Jumping off the page

The brief for this week’s homework from the writing group is to write about a grandparent, creating a fictional account of a factual event from their life.

Easier said than done, I thought. Two of my grandparents died before I was born and the only memory I have of my maternal grandmother is of a tiny woman with greying curly hair, sitting at the kitchen table, warming her hands round the teapot. So that leaves my paternal grandfather; long dead now, but I have plenty of memories from my childhood.

Continue reading