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.
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.
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.
Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary) Genre: Fiction Purpose: To explore Burroway’s concept of “Character as Image”; examine potential of non-verbal communication; and situate the reader to receive information along with a character Readings: Chapters 4 (“Character”) and Gabriel García Márquez’s “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing
Two characters come upon one another in the middle of a forest. Something bad—but not melodramatic*—has happened to one character and that character needs help. When the first character tries to tell the second what’s wrong, it’s revealed that the two characters don’t speak the same language. (This could include sign language.)
Write a scene from the point of view of the second character (first person “I”) while the first character tries to communicate the problem using only gestures, drawing, or other non-verbal communication. Additionally:
the second character cannot know what the problem is before the first character reveals it in this scene;
the second character should notice details throughout the interaction that reveal more about the first character (i.e. clothing, appearance, possessions, etc.)
the second character may or may not—or even cannot—help.
*Challenge yourself to come up with a problem that doesn’t involve far-fetched plot lines, flat characters, and easy conclusions. This means it would be best to avoid killers, aliens, and monsters. Think about more ordinary but equally tension-filled situations like a farmer whose lost a bull, a teenager who has a flat tire but doesn’t know how to change it, a hunter who accidentally shot his buddy in the foot, etcetera.
Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary) Genre: Fiction Purpose: To open up discussion about plot structure and significant details Readings: Chapters 9 (“Fiction”) and 6 (“Story”) in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing
Write a summary of what happens in the video. (2 min.)
Now write a scene from the point of view of the bear or the man. Try to tap into their thoughts and moment-by-moment perceptions. Include as many details as you can in 5 minutes. Here’s the hitch: you must tell the story in reverse chronological order! (Tell the story backwards!)
Look at the inverted check mark diagram of pg. 173 in Burroway. Discuss how the check mark works for a chronological story compared to the story told in reverse. Where does the conflict fall in your scene? The crisis (climax)? Is there resolution? Were there any details you thought of telling the story backwards that you might not have thought of telling the story chronologically?
Class: Intro to Creative Writing Genre: Drama Readings: Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Time: 45+ minutes
1. Have students pair off. One person per group should be in charge of transcription.
2. Leave the classroom. Take the students to a common area on campus like the student union, cafeteria, or the quad. Once you are there, have the groups split up and walk through the crowd. Encourage them not to linger in any one place. They should write down the most compelling and/or bizarre sentence they hear someone say. Examples: “I ate a whole pound of Swedish Fish and it cost me like 35 dollars!” “How old are you?” (10 minutes.)
3. Return to the classroom. Have each group pass their transcribed line to the group on their right.
4. On the board, write down a pair of character roles in a specific setting for each group. I gave my classes the following character/setting sets:
a. Two waste disposal workers on the back of a garbage truck.
b. A veterinarian and the owner of a pet in the exam room.
c. The host and a contestant on the game show.
d. A teenager with driver’s ed instructor in the car.
e. A police officer and an arrested person in cruiser.
f. A priest and a congregant in confession booth.
g. Two single people on a speed date at a bar.
5. Each group should read aloud the line passed to them. Assign character/setting sets to the groups based on these lines. Play it safe and assign the characters/setting to lines that seem natural, or see what happens if you make unexpected pairings. (Hint: Students often have more fun with unexpected pairings.)
6. The line provided will serve as the first line of the scene involving their assigned character/setting sets. Each student should assume the role of one of the characters. Each will respond to their partner’s line by passing the paper back and forth. (30 min.)
This exercise allows students to work collaboratively to create a narrative through dialogue, a skill that many of my students cite as the hardest thing to accomplish in their first plays. Additionally, their time in the crowd locates them in conversational rhythm and dynamics so that the information about the plot doesn’t seem unnatural to the conversation. The assigned lines provide them with an inciting action as well as a clue toward their new character’s personality. The hope is that once they are writing on their own, they will be able to recreate these investigative processes on characters of their own.
Class: Writing Out of the Ordinary Genre: Poetry/Nonfiction Readings: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Time: 40 minutes
I place many objects in the table or assign them at random to students. All of the objects are old: postcards, advertisements, mugshots, taxidermy instructions, a dried beaver face, etc.
1. Select a piece of ephemera from the center of the table.
2. Describe the object. What does it look like? What is/was it used for? How old is it? (5 min.)
3. Who owned this article? Who encountered it? Speculate on their perception/reaction would have been to the object. Would the object have some special importance to them? Would they have ignored the object? Describe a situation in which the object was previously encountered. Is it similar or different to your initial reaction? (10 min.)
4. Have you ever encountered something like this before? Make parallels to your experience with similar objects. Ex. If it’s an advertisement, talk about an experience or reaction to another advertisement. (10 min.)
5. Is there a public and/or private issue that this object and your memory causes you to consider? Does it make you think about identity? The ephemeral nature of life? A shift in culture or fashion? Cruelty? Art? Talk us through your thought process. (10 min.)
6. After thinking about this object in the context of speculation, memory, and meditation, has the object changed in meaning for you? Do you appreciate it more or less? (5 min.)
***Bonus step: Now switch objects with the person on your right. Describe this object. How does this new object compare or contrast to your old object? Does it raise similar issues?