Asking Your Characters Questions

An innovative way of inventing people

This week’s blog is brought to you by my lovely writer friend, Elizabeth Woodgate.  Elizabeth is a writer and teacher with an MA in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of Winchester. Recent publications have been in Little Red Writer’s Dorset Shorts and University of Huddersfield’s Grist collection ‘Trouble’.

 When I was a child, one of my favourite past times was raiding the dressing up box and becoming someone else. Making up names for characters in my first novel was as fun as that childhood game and over the course of several drafts, my cast of characters evolved, some keeping their place in the story and some falling by the wayside. By the time I got to a fourth draft, all the fun of the early stages had gone, I had left the dressing up play far behind and instead some very serious themes had emerged. The trouble was, I didn’t know my characters well enough to let them handle this seriousness or find a way to any kind of redemption.

I took a break from the novel while I moved house. As the dust settled and new paint dried on the walls, inspiration came in the form of a book by Bridget Whelan called Back to Creative Writing School. A chapter entitled ‘Inventing People,’ immediately caught my eye - perhaps I could resurrect the spirit of the dressing up box! Whelan adapts an idea from Marcel Proust in the form of a questionnaire with topics that range from, ‘what drink would you order from a bar?’ to ‘when did you last cry?’ to the final biggie: ‘what’s the one thing you wouldn’t want anyone else to know about you?’

 The questions let me get much closer to my characters, so close in fact that when my heroine’s mother revealed her anguish, I started to cry along with her and had to step back and make myself a soothing cup of tea. Inspired by the wealth of detail this exercise produced, I created a timeline for the two families in my novel and a family tree for each one which placed my heroine in a much clearer context.

I now had lots of new material but was faced with another conundrum: compared with the rest of her family, and indeed the entire set of characters, my heroine had very little to say in response to my questions and didn’t seem to have access to any dressing up box. I love quiet heroines - Fanny Price in Mansfield Park is one of my favourites (although lots of readers are exasperated by her), Eilis in Brooklyn by Colm Toibin is another. But what they need to do, if they are to have their own story is leave home (neither Fanny or Eilis do this willingly) and play a little. Although it seemed like a waste of years of hard work, I decided move on from this first novel and let an idea that had been jumping up and down in my head for some time take centre stage. I wrote, much more quickly than my previous attempts, a novel about a character who has to work things out for themselves in an unfamiliar setting, free from the constraints of family. The story arc emerged once I let my main character cut loose, take some risks and raid the dressing up box. I’m about to write a second draft and will be conducting some interviews before I dive in. This time, I’m expecting my main character to come up with some interesting answers!