Jane Cooper is one of my best friends and a dear writing buddy. She is one of those warm, thoughtful, creative people who make life for those who know her just that little bit better. She is a teacher of English and Creative Writing. She’s written eight textbooks for use in Scottish Schools, and is the author of 365 Ways To Get You Writing.
Over to Jane:
What makes this exercise work?
It’s a great way of dealing with that concept that is so easy to say, and so tricky to do in practice: show, don’t tell. It does take a little prep for the teacher or group leader, who needs to gather pictures of people, but writers love seeing them spread out on a floor or a table. Often, people can’t tell me why they chose a certain picture, they just know they felt drawn to that person, and that is the start of a character coming to life.
You can do this exercise on your own too.
For this exercise you should start by finding some photos in newspapers or magazines of people you think look interesting. Don’t pick anyone you recognise – you don’t want any pre-conceived ideas in your writers’ heads. I’ve been gathering pictures for years, and every now and again I have a lovely contemplative afternoon laminating a pile of faces – which probably reveals quite a lot about my character!
If you wanted to know what I was like, you could get a very good notion by watching me wash the dishes. There’s a little utility room just off my kitchen, and until I have time to get to work I very neatly tuck everything in there round the corner, out of sight. I stack the crockery in neat piles, and I put the cutlery, sticky end up, in the biggest of the several dirty mugs.
Then I set to. I scrape the coffee grounds into the bin and rinse the pot under the tap as I run a basin of very hot water. I start with the glasses, setting them rim down on the drainer, then move on to the mugs. Crockery comes next, followed by cutlery. I have a special drainer for this: knives, forks, spoons and teaspoons each have their own unique slot. Finally I scrub the pans, baking trays and serving dishes. I never stop until everything is spotless. Then I wipe down the kitchen worktops, polish the dining table and rinse the sink.
I explained this process to my students and asked them how they would describe me. “Meticulous,” said one girl, kindly. I might have said uptight or obsessive. Some people might call me controlling.
Timing: 11 minutes
1. Choose one of the pictures of people from the pile. Don’t pick any one you think you could name, or anyone about whom you think you know any facts or details. Choose a face, a person, you feel drawn to, or interested in. 1 minute
2. Write for 10 minutes. You’re going to write in third person (using he/ she) and in detail to describe your character doing a simple task. The way you describe the character and his or her actions should reveal as much as possible about what this person is like. Use as little dialogue as possible – none if you can.
You could describe your character:
waiting to be called in for a job interview.
trying to get a young child to go to bed.
packing for a week’s foreign holiday.
making a journey on a very crowded train or bus
shopping for an outfit to wear to a wedding
ordering and eating a meal alone in a restaurant
making a packed lunch or picnic
waiting for someone who is late
This is a technique you can use again and again in your writing. Actions always speak louder than words. If you find yourself stuck in the middle of a longer piece, try giving your main character something quite ordinary to do as they wrestle with the wider challenges you, as a writer, have set them.