Getting to know you
I like a good writing prompt. Not so much for writer’s block – starting doesn’t tend to be my problem so much as keeping going and finishing – but a good prompt can unlock areas of my story or character that I’d never considered before. In particular, I collect character questions. I have well over one hundred now which include the obvious ones such as name, age, mannerisms, plus the less usual such as ‘what is the most important thing your character has forgotten’ and ‘what did your character dream right before this story began’. Some are more useful than others – in writing something set 70 years ago asking a character if they use paper or plastic bags at the shop (or bring their own) isn’t entirely relevant, although even then you can usually adapt the question to suit the era.
This process of interviewing a character is one that suits my journalistic (nosy) background, but while it draws out the basics, I’ve realised it doesn’t do much for actually getting inside a character’s head. But I have found a wonderful solution!
The Character Map.
The map is one of several pocket-sized, fold-up maps created by a company called Writing Maps and designed to help you get into your writing. Each map has at least 12 prompts written by Shaun Levin, with beautiful illustrations by a variety of artists and designers. The illustrations in The Character Map are drawn by Hannah Rowlands. Unlike the usual list of questions, Shaun asks you to get under the skin of your character by having conversations with them rather than a Q&A session.
For instance, one suggestion is ‘Sit with your character on a park bench and talk about love.’ On first reading it doesn’t seem a million miles away from ‘is your character successful romantically?’ (one of the many questions I have gathered over the past few years). Both are asking you to think about your character’s views on love and romance. But what I think Shaun’s map does is encourage you to go a little deeper, to ask yourself about your views as well as your characters. How did you feel when that person broke your heart or proposed? Have you always been anti-marriage? What caused that?
By having conversations like this it leads to more questions, whereas if you were feeling particularly lazy my version could be answered with a simple yes or no and you move on. By starting a conversation you’re interacting with your character and their - physical and emotional - world, which means you start to write more truthfully.
The Q&A process is helpful for basics, but I’ve realised that I’ve been treating my characters like they are list of parts to be ticked off by the observer. I haven’t been thinking about them from the inside out. I’ve got three central characters that still need a lot of development and I’m looking forward to spending the next couple of weeks working my way through my map to get to know them a little better.
Oh, and the maps are a bargain at £3.90 each and are perfect gifts for any writing friends you might have.*
* I am in no way associated with Writing Maps. I discovered them via Mslexia magazine, which is currently running a competition in which you can win the first eight maps.