Writing Exercise: “Guess Who”
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.
Before my Literary Editing & Publishing class yesterday, my students completed the following reading assignments:
Read “Self-Portrait of the Artist as Ungrateful Black Writer” by Saeed Jones and “They Pretend to Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist” by Jenny Zhang on Buzzfeed; “Sherman Alexie Speaks Out on the Best American Poetry 2015” on The Best American Poetry blog; “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” by Calvin Trillin in The New Yorker; “Have They Run Out of White Poets Yet?” and “regarding the yellowface poet” by Franny Choi; “Diversity in Book Publishing Isn’t Just About Writers — Marketing Matters, Too” by Jean Ho, “Decolonize, Not Diversify” by Kavita Bhanot on Moodle; “Cate Marvin Discusses the VIDA Count: An Interview” (pgs. 279–284) and “Counting Bodies: Notes for Further Consideration” (285–286) by Marcelle Heath in Paper Dreams.
In class, they discussed editorial responsibilities toward the parity and decolonization of publishing. They broke down the semantic differences between “diversity” and “decolonization,” and they discussed the impact on writers of editorial biases through first-hand accounts and poetic responses by Saeed Jones and Franny Choi. In addition to the articles and works above, we read excerpts from “On Pandering” by Claire Vaye Watkins, and I charged my students with interrogating their own implicit and explicit biases. We discussed again the idea that there’s no one literary tradition, that there’s many literary traditions and the “canon” is just one of those traditions. We considered appropriation’s history within western literary culture and the ongoing negative impact it has on creative work. We also talked about how, ideally, all editors should frequently interrogate their own tastes, aesthetics, and biases so that they don’t become lazy in their work. This was one of the most important classes that I think I’ve ever facilitated, and my students had a great deal of insight, questions, and concerns to contribute during the discussion. Many of them were horrified to find out about these issues in publishing and how these implicit biases were sometimes ignored by editors.