Recently, I attended a playwriting workshop at the UNB campus in Fredericton, New Brunswick, led by Jenny Munday, a professional actor, playwright and dramaturge in residence with this summer’s NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival.
With Jenny guiding us, I and a group of 12 other actors, writers and playwrights with various levels of experience spent most of the day developing characters on paper, creating dialogue together, and then sharing our work.
Just like any other artistic endeavour, creative writing can be a relaxing tool and a powerful outlet for personal expression. No matter what we spend most of our time doing, it’s beneficial to flex our creative muscles.
So I thought I would share one of Jenny’s writing exercises on character development with you, using what I came up with as an example. Try it! You might find yourself developing a new hobby.
Hunt through magazines and other periodicals and choose a photo of one or more people who capture your eye. They could be old or young, oddly dressed or conservative. (One of the participants at Jenny’s workshop chose a photo of a man standing in front of a picture window on a sunny day, staring inside the house. Did I mention he was buck naked? As Anne of Green Gables says, there’s a whole lot of “scope for the imagination” there…so choose a challenging picture! )
Being someone who enjoys writing for young adults and middle graders, I chose a photo of a teenage girl and a slightly older boy. She had dark, super-curly hair, was dressed in preppy clothes and had a sweet, innocent expression. The taller boy looked quite different. His expression was cool and aloof, and he struck me as a potential trouble-maker.
So, I set about imagining a back story for these two. Are they brother and sister? Is she obedient and dependable, while he’s a bit more unpredictable…maybe worse?
Now that you have your photo, set a timer and write for 15 minutes about your character in the third person. Here’s my example.
Monica is 15 years old, a grade nine student. She’ll turn 16 before she makes it to grade 10. (Age is very important to her.) She’s a straight A student and plays soccer with the community league for her age group in the summer. She likes basketball more than soccer, but she’s only 5’1”. Monica is sensitive about her height. Her older brother teases her about it. She was pretty good at gymnastics, too. Her compact frame is suited to somersaults and balance beams.
Monica is sweet and a good rule follower. She is motivated to do everything well—not like the flashy cheerleaders, not a flirt, not a pot-smoking rebel, just an industrious girl with her head down, doing what’s expected.
Sort of invisible, in her own way. Good in school, good at sports, gets along with others, murmurs “please” and ‘thank you,” holds the door for people, even teachers.
She babysits for the next-door neighbor, who gave her 50 bucks to watch the kids on New Year’s Eve. She dresses well but not designer—frugal like her mother, she’s not opposed to diving in the dusty bins of second-stores for a bargain. She knows how to obey, how to please, which sets her parents free to concern themselves with her older brother, Seth, who does not know how to obey and doesn’t care about pleasing anybody.
Monica worries about him. He’s two years older, secretive. She’s caught him in lies occasionally when asked about where he’s been or what he’s been doing.
Now, set your timer for 15 minutes and write about this character in the second person. Here’s what I wrote for Monica:
You are 15 years old and you are so mature for your age. You’re the kind of girl who does everything well all the time, so much so that people just expect it, just take it for granted that no matter what’s going on you will be there.
You are always the one standing behind the table, organizing, representing, helping, serving. You are always dependable. You are on time, you work hard, you’re an A student, you scored the winning goal in the last soccer match, probably because you knew everyone on the team would be so disappointed if you didn’t. You are always there to hold the door for people, murmur a “please” and “thank you,” be a friend to the new kid on the block who’s lost. You sit with the unpopular girl in the cafeteria at lunchtime.
You’re the type of daughter two parents are lucky to have. And you also wish so desperately that they would say, “Thank you, Monica,” for cleaning up after your older brother. “Thank you, Monica,” for helping your little sister with her homework every night. “Thank you, Monica,” for making dinner while they were at the police station; “Thank you, Monica,” for doing the laundry and the dishes while they were out hunting for Seth every day for a whole week…but thank you never comes.
You know they don’t mean it, you know they’re doing the best they can with a bad situation, but you just feel, well, invisible.
You sometimes wonder, if you left home, just dropped everything and left it all behind, would they even notice?
Now, set your timer for another 15 minutes and write about your character in first person. Once again, here’s my example:
Yesterday, here’s how my day went. At six am, I got up and walked the dog. The dog my older brother Seth wanted so badly six years ago and never once fed, bathed, played with or took for a walk. I don’t think Seth even came home last night, which means my mother will be beside herself when she gets up and my father will rant about throwing him out again.
So, at 15, my first profession is dog walker. I don’t even like dogs. Seth named him Bailey, after the street we live on. Six-fifteen: five-minute shower, get dressed, stuff some toast in my mouth and then run down to the basement. I had to throw another load of laundry in because Mom forgot to do it last night. I think she was searching Seth’s room for drugs. I dunno for sure, cause I was in my bedroom with the music turned up really loud, studying for an English exam, hoping that all the other noises would just go away.
Seven am, finished writing up a science lab, and headed off to school where I had two tests and a speech before lunch. Student council meeting at lunch, science and gym in the afternoon and soccer tryouts after school. Then home to an empty house, except for the living room. There was Seth, passed out on the couch. Mom and Dad were still at work, and the dog is sleeping faithfully at his feet.
That’s the ultimate insult. Seth doesn’t do a damn thing for you, dog, yet he’s the one you like?
Yeah, thanks. I guess I’m invisible. I’ll just go to my room and disappear.
Interesting exercise, huh? Did you notice your character change and develop? What I noticed is that the third and second person compositions gave information other people observe about Monica…what she does and what she says. But in first person, we saw what Monica really thinks and feels on the inside: she was resentful, stressed, and angry, tired of always picking up the slack and not being appreciated.
This plays out later when Jenny asked us to write a scene using our own character in dialogue with another participant’s character. You could do the same if you write two or more character sketches.
Monica was paired up with a character named Jean, written by fellow participant Kathy Mac. Jean is a stubborn old woman with ill-fitting dentures and dyed hair. Her property straddles the border between Canada and the US, but has no intention of moving from her family homestead. Instead, she drinks mint juleps with her neighbor and as a recent widow, plans to purge a lifetime of junk from her house. In this exercise, our job was to interpret not only our own character, but the other character as well.
Here’s the short scene I imagined for them:
Monica knocks at the front door, Jean answers, and her eyebrows knit together.
Jean: Hello, can I help you?
Monica: Um, can I use the phone?
Jean: You’re not from around here.
Jean: Yeah, I haven’t seen you around here before.
Monica: No, I’m from…away.
Monica: Well, can I use the phone?
Jean: (clicks her dentures, they’re uncomfortable) Yeah, I guess so…if it works. I’ve been arguing about the bill.
Monica: (tries the phone) It’s dead.
Jean: Figures. Highway robbery. I said I wasn’t going to pay the bill til they fixed their mistake. Well, sit down, girl.
Monica: (stays standing). Do you have a cel phone?
Jean: A cel phone? Why would I have something like that? I don’t like to talk that much.
Monica: Funny, I wouldn’t have thought that.
Jean: Well, I like to talk, but not on the phone. If you want to talk to me, come and see me. That’s what I tell my kids, anyway. And do you see them here? No. Figures. What’s your name, kid? Sit down, for God’s sake.
Monica: (sits down on the edge of a dusty rose chair) Monica.
Jean: Nice to meet you Monica. I’m Jean. Well, it’s my middle name, my first name’s Margaret, but I like Jean. So how old are you?
Monica: I’m 15. I’ll be sixteen by next month.
Jean: Ah…I have a daughter-in-law named Monika. Well, not anymore. She divorced my son.
Silence for a minute.
Jean: So what are you doing here? You don’t live in Woodstock.
Monica: No, I’m from Halifax.
Jean: Kinda young to be travelling all alone, ain’t ya? D’ya want some tea? We drink tea here in the middle of the afternoon.
Monica: No, I don’t like tea. My mother drinks it, it calms her down. But I think it tastes bitter.
Jean: How about a mint julep, then? Me and the neighbor drink barrels of it.
Monica: Okay, I’ve never had one.
(Jean gets up and serves her a mint julep and sits down across from her.)
Jean: So, your mother’s nervous, is she?
Monica: She has good reason to be. My older brother is a drug addict. She’s-she’s confused.
Jean: Zat why you ran away?
(Monica looks up, eyebrows raised)
Jean: Well, why else would you show up at my door, dearie, in the middle of nowhere? What were you going to do, sneak into the US? Nothin’ there but cutthroat politics and cheap fast food.
Monica: (begins to cry) I can’t take it anymore! For the first time in my life, I failed a test. I figured if I left it on the kitchen table, somebody might notice me, might complain. Maybe somebody would say, “Monica, what’s going on? What’s the problem? You’ve never failed a test before.” But nobody did. They took Seth to detox for the fifth time. I signed my mother’s name on my own test, brought it to school, and then I realized…nobody notices you in my house unless you’re a drug addict.
The point of these exercises is not to come away with a perfect piece of writing, but to show how to develop characters. The more you spend time with them, the more they interact with others, the more they change. Whether you’re interested in writing for pleasure or for work, learning to observe others and imagine their reactions placed in a variety of situations can only improve your skills. Good luck, and have fun!