I’ve written about writing exercises before, but this time I just wanted to talk about one that has really helped me.
Last week, I started a five-week (or really, five-fortnight, but you know what I mean) novel-writing course at my local writers’ centre. I’ve been a member there for a while but haven’t actually been to much – with the kids, most of the things they’ve had on have been either at a bad time or took too much out of the day (say, 10 till 5 on a Saturday, which is really hard for me to do). I figured I could manage two hours a fortnight, though, so off I went.
The first session was about characterisation. Characterisation is something that I find a lot of fun – getting to know one’s characters is always an enjoyable process, and I love seeing where they take me. Often it’s places I don’t expect, but that’s half the fun of it, don’t you think? Anyway, I’ve been given (and used) different character sheets over the years, but there is something about them that seems, I don’t know, sterile. Filling in a form about someone, while it can be very instructive, doesn’t really give me a feel for them. Thing was, I didn’t know of any other way so I persevered.
Then along came Thursday night, and Lucy Clark, the author who is running the course, made the comment that they don’t really work for her either. Hurrah! I knew I couldn’t be alone, but it was great to see someone who has been really successful facing the same battles. What she did, she explained, was write a biography of each character. This is a page or two – or three or four, depending on how small you write and how far you get into the character – written in the first person, telling the story of that person’s life. It’s not really structured, and it’s not intended to be edited (much), just a jumbled narrative of one thought after another. We did a sample in the class, given just a name and an occupation, and it’s amazing how much I could turn out. (In fact, I’m considering using the character I came up with in that session in a future novel.) This is free writing at its best - rambling, unfocused and full of tangents, yet extraordinarily useful when it comes to characterisation and character development.
I’ve used this since on the characters I’ve been writing for the past couple of years, and I have learnt so much more about them by doing this that I have in two years worth of scene creation. Sure, a lot of it I already knew, but I found myself delving so much further into them, especially some of the secondary and tertiary characters, that finishing this manuscript is going to be a breeze. Instead of wondering how someone is going to react to a certain situation, I feel now that I’m at the stage of just putting them in the scene and stage managing – and some of my best writing has been doing just that.
So, there it is. My tip of the day for really getting into your characters’ heads, especially if character sheets don’t really work for you. Of course, not everyone is the same so this might really not appeal to some people. For me, though, it’s been amazing.