Robert joined us from Pittsburgh, making the six-hour trek across flat Ohio to read pieces about dive bars, the first inklings of love, not wanting to admit you don’t like Star Wars, and losing those close to you. His prose was clear, honest, and tinged with humor. After some Q&A about Pittsburgh, writing about a city you still live in, and how characters work in a story, we got down to business. In lieu of providing a prompt and letting everyone work on their own for 30 minutes, Robert led everyone in a character-mapping exercise designed to spark creativity, flesh out the world of a story, and structure plot and conflict.
1. It was a little arts-and-crafty since we each got a big sheet of paper and some markers. Everyone scattered to find suitable writing surfaces, and we began by drawing a small circle in the center of the paper. Robert instructed us to write this inside the circle: ________ (name) is a(n) ___________ (adjective) __-year-old ________ (occupation) who wants _______ (desire). It was a lot like Mad Libs. We had about a minute or two to fill in those blanks and create a character until we added another circle around our first one. Robert said our maps would look like those solar system models when we were done.
2. Before we moved on, though, Robert had us take seven minutes to write a brief sketch of our characters: what do they look like? What kinds of clothing do they wear? Where do they buy that clothing? What does their physical appearance tell us about them?
3. The next ring was for members of our character’s nuclear family. We had about two or three minutes to name three more characters and give them ages and characteristics.
4. The next ring was for friends and allies. Three more bubbles with characters and their ages and characteristics.
5. After friend and allies came a ring for the dead and/or missing. Who in the lives of our characters was gone, was missed? Three more characters.
6. We took another break from the map to write three very brief stories, each about our main character interacting with one of the other characters we created so far. One of the stories had to involve a small kindness, something positive.
7. The final ring for the exercise–though you could really keep going–was for sworn enemies and frenemies. Everyone has these. Three more characters.
8. After this, Robert asked us all to write a long character sketch based on one of a few prompts he shared, giving us about twenty minutes to do. You could either write about the most beautiful thing your character has ever seen, the worst thing your character has ever done, an illness your character had, or a time when your character most wanted something.
9. We paired up and shared these character sketches, providing feedback to our partners about what we found most compelling and what we would like to see in an expanded version of the story.
Throughout this process, Robert asked questions, invited people to share what they’d written so far, and urged us to think about the applications of character mapping. You could mine the map for conflict, use it to organize your story, find holes or weaknesses. You could add many more rings to this map, too: extended family, people you only know on Facebook, well-wishers, stalkers. It goes on.
Indy WordLab is held on the first Monday of every month at Indy Reads Books at 911 Mass. Ave. Learn more here, here, here, and here. The next WordLab will be held Monday, September 8.