Writer Jean Kwok uses a Character Sketch Table in order to better develop and, subsequently, understand her characters. Whether or not she ends up using all the information in her final creative work, it helps her consider the ways that her characters move (and have moved) in the world. Prior to completing the following exercise, review this document and consider what sorts of information you would need to know about your characters. To begin the exercise, follow the next steps:
Create two characters who identify as the same gender and use the same pronouns. Note: If you choose to create a transgendered character, please honor the gender and pronouns they have chosen, not those assigned at birth, e.g. Dan, a cisgendered man, and Colin, a trans man or Maria, a cisgendered woman, and Jamila, a trans woman, would be grouped together here.
Create a quick character sketch in which you identify them by at least: name, age, occupation, interests/hobbies, life goals, and an old embarrassment. If there’s anything else you think your reader should know, you may also include it here. Avoid stereotyping based on race, sexuality, gender, ability, region, culture, religion, appearance, or age toward a complex person that’s more than any one of these identifiers.
Write a paragraph-long description of a short interaction between only one of your characters and someone else—barista, boss, what-have-you, as long as it’s not your other sketched-out character. The only caveat is that you must only use this character’s pronoun and never identify them by their name or specifically identify their occupation.
Read your peers’ pieces and try to guess which character appears in their scenes.
Now, let’s apply it to your creative writing. Create a dramatic situation in which a first-person narrator has to switch between two different types of language in her narration and in her dialogue, e.g. her dialogue with her best friend is informal but, in telling the story to a wider audience, she uses proper grammar and more meditative language.
For an added challenge, you can add in a third act of code-switching, i.e. your narrator might talk one way in her narration, one way to her best friend on the phone, and one way with her mother while they are out to lunch.
Note: Please take care to avoid cultural appropriation with this exercise in code-switching. To do so, you might try taking on acts of code-switching that are familiar to you and your discourses.
For “Spin,” students will be negotiating subtext, rumor, dramatic irony, subjectivity, objectivity, and context in our readings and their own work. Students will discuss the elements of reportage and rumor in their icebreaker text, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and then discern the difference between Rowling’s subtext and the subtext, however erroneous, read into the actions of the protagonists by other characters. Students will likewise watch a clip from the 1966 film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and identify elements of dialogue, actions, body language, and gestures that reveal subtext, and then they will do a writing exercise in which they describe the innocent actions of a character in public and then re-describe them in the point of view of a law enforcement official, private investigator, reporter, or suspicious bystander who misconstrues, willfully or automatically, the actions of that innocent person.
In the “Debate” writing exercise, students are asked to create two characters—political candidates—with unique syntax and diction in order to debate a phony issue, like whether muffins should actually be called cake, for example. In doing so, they learn how to format dialogue; to progress action through dialogue; and how to demonstrate a character’s values, motivations, and background through dialogue.
To understand letterpress printing, imagine that every letter you see on your screen is an object, a tiny piece of metal. Not only is every letter an object, but every space between every letter is also an object. Every space between words, every space between lines—every bit of white space is an object. When typesetting, a printer has to think about negative space as something tangible.
This is where the en space comes in. An en space is a rectangular piece of metal or wood whose primary purpose is to be smaller than the metal or wood type being printed. The en space isn’t type-high—it doesn’t sit proud like an ordinary character—so it doesn’t catch ink when it’s run through the press. It just holds printable type together in a tight grid, creating spaces between words. It is never seen, but without it, everything printed would be nonsense.
In “In Medias Res,” students write and re-write a scene in the three different points of view from a YouTube video of a man texting and running into a wild bear. They likewise create a character profile for their point of view character to navigate Anne Lamott’s suggestion of an “emotional acre.” In doing so, they negotiate the scope, immediacy, and language of each point of view, and consider how “in the middle of things” each point of view feels.
In “Step 1,” I’m asking students to develop their skills in the imperative and descriptive moods so that a character and/or narrator can demonstrate or walk through an concept or action. They will base their preliminary discussion on “The Unforgivable Curses” chapter of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the semester’s icebreaker text, as well as read the opening pages of Lorrie Moore’s “How To Be an Other Woman.” In doing so, they will likewise refer to some of the terminology we’ve gone over in previous classes—diction, syntax, dialogue, concrete details, point of view—and demonstrate their understanding of that terminology by relying on those literary concepts to make an effective piece.
In this reading discussion prompt, students are asked to consider what elements contribute to our understanding of character in this “Guess Who” game in which students draw a character who appears in chapters 3–12 of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and then describe them by answering a series of questions. They will use their descriptions to come up with three clues about the character: one is a concrete detail about the character’s appearance, the second is to identify a scene in which they appear, and the third is a literary craft element that helps reveal their character.
On & off for several years, I tried to write a series of poems that addressed or took on the persona of the character Emilia in Othello, my namesake. A few poems were informed by her story, but none took on her voice head on. I was paralyzed by the fear that I couldn’t write in the voice of a character previously voiced by Shakespeare—how could I not be?
With a prompt given by Mary Szybist at The Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, however, I was able to try out Emilia’s voice again, and now I’ve embarked on the series, tentatively titled “Alternate Endings,” which allows Emilia free range to consider other fates, to address her husband & killer Iago, to reveal more about her relationship with Desdemona, to reckon with her literal role in the play & the stage’s constraints, & to anachronistically comment upon contemporary events. I see this sequence as a foundational pillar in the third manuscript, which also deals with the reconstruction of the body & memory.
As I continue to work on these poems, I need some good persona & sequence lodestars to guide me. I’ve been spending a lot of time with Mary’s Incarnadine & Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination the last couple of weeks. But is there anything else I should pick up & read to guide me through this project? I’m particularly interested in those sequences that reckon with historical, mythic, or literary figures through persona or apostrophes. Thanks so much for your help, friends.