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Writing Prompt #12

July 19, 2010

This week’s prompt is short, simple, and powerful. I picked up this technique both at my Clarion in 2007 and at an acting class.

The problem: you’re trying to write a scene using a character that doesn’t feel right somehow. He just doesn’t sing. You move him from one side of the room to the other like a puppet. But if you cut the strings, he falls to the floor.

Your character needs life. He needs to breathe. He needs to say things real people would say and do things real people would do in this situation. But you don’t seem to understand him well enough to make him believable or interesting.

The solution: get into his skin. Walk in his shoes. Becomes the character for a little while.

When I saw walk in his shoes, I mean that literally. Take a walk. If you need to get away from curious eyes before you get into character, do that. But at the earliest opportunity, take a moment to think about the character. Bring to mind what you already know about him. Then when you’re ready, walk like he would walk. Just take a stroll down the sidewalk. But do it in character. (And take your notepad.)

Perhaps you’re writing about a tightly wound project manager. How would he walk to his car, for instance? Head down, shoulders hunched up around the ears from the stress, body tight, legs rigid? Or perhaps you’re writing about a rapier-wielding Cassanova. He carries himself with a slight swagger, a pride in his fencing (take that as you will). His walks with a slower pace, shoulders relaxed, head up and facing the world with a challenging smile. Do it! You may feel self-conscious at first, but that’ll fade.

Or maybe you’re getting to know a superhero. She’s 80 but looks and feels 20. She could smash the bricks off a building if she felt like it, but the day is too gorgeous. How would she face the world? What about a wise woman, an herbalist? She’s the spiritual leader of her village and its resident healer, so she’s always on the lookout for wild plants that would be useful. She stoops a little, walks with a slight limp, keeps her head down scanning the ground, but can go for days in the brutal heat if she has to. How would that sturdy presence feel?

Something interesting happens when you assume the physicality of a character. You see things a little differently. You notice details about what you’re doing and where you are that you might not have seen before. This is all material. As you continue, start to think like the character. After all, what do you think about when you take walks? Your life, your to-dos. Let yourself be distracted by “your” life and all the little things that fill it.

After you’ve gotten into the groove of it, stop and write about the experience. This might be a good time to engage in last week’s prompt by writing AS your character. Otherwise, just describe the physical sensations. Add any new observations that occurred to you as you were walking. Did you pick up a mannerism that made sense in the moment? Or perhaps the character took a strange turn – that superhero, it turns out, is just as stressed out as the project manager. After all, with great power comes a great big task list.

You can follow the spirit of this technique in just about any activity. In fact, when I’m stuck on a scene, sometimes I’ll get up, walk to the kitchen in character, and make a cup of tea (or pot of coffee, or glass of martini, depending on the character). Assuming the role of the person in the scene, even acting it out with props or furniture, blows apart that stuck point and often gives me a clue as to what was tripping me up in the first place.

Try it and tell us what happens. (You don’t have to be in character for that part.)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 20, 2010 7:42 pm

    A couple of years ago I was writing a character who wielded a high tech Japanese sword. We were walking through a small Renaissance Fair during a Shakespeare Festival at the local university, and one of the vendors had these beautifully balanced wood katana swords made with two woods, so it looked like the edge of the blade. I had to buy one and take it home and swing with it in the living room (with a high ceiling — grin) to get comfortable with it, so my character could be comfortable with it.

    Not shoes, per se, but sometimes “toys” are really, really useful.

    Dr. Phil

  2. July 21, 2010 4:21 pm

    Perfect! That’s a great example. And WAY more cool than making tea.

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