Stephen May is a wonderful writing teacher and the author of Tag, Life!Death!Prizes and Wake Up Everyday Happy. He has also co-written the fabulous Write a Novel and Get It Published, which I turn to often for advice and inspiration. Here, he shares an exercise about how, as writers, we use that potent mix of truth and lies to create believable characters. I remember sitting around a table with him and sixteen teenagers on a writing retreat at Ty Newydd as we all completed this exercise. Some wonderful pieces of writing came through.
Over to Stephen:
What makes this exercise work?
This is my favourite exercise because it does all the things good fiction does. Given short a tight word count you have to make sure every word fights for it’s place. It has to be exactly the right word. You draw on memory and experience but you add a twist of imagination.
Time: 15 minutes
Spend planning key words and ideas: make notes on what would you include in a biography of yourself.
Now write the biography in 50 words. Not 49. Not 51. 13 minutes.
Write in the 1st (I) or 3rd (he/she) person.
Have fun with the task, do it any style you like.
Include one lie.
When you’ve got 50 words in the best possible order, do the exercise again, but this time allow yourself only 30 words…
Do this in a group of writers, share the biography and try to guess the lie!
Use the biographical sketch as the basis of a character for a short story or novel.
Choose a character you have already worked on and write his / her biography as you know it and then include one lie that he / she might want others to believe.