Thursday, June 10, 2010

Character Development Tip -- Shopping with your character

Sometimes your characters arrive full blown, and other times it's a circuitous journey of discovery to flesh out your character, so she/he feels fully nuanced and human. There's the obvious biographical stuff you write down or think about when trying to create characters, but that's a head on/from the head way of going about it. Sometimes you have to find your character sideways, through odd little activities, slip into strange crevices. One such way is to go shopping with your character. Yup, go shopping with your character.

I wish I'd come up with this idea, but I didn't. I first stumbled across this years ago when browsing the websites of other writers and I found this on Diana Wieler's website. She's the author of several YA novels including the wonderful BAD BOY, winner of the Governor General's Award for Children's Literature in 1989. I'd provide a link to the site, but it doesn't seem to exist any more and try as I might I can't locate it. Anyway, Diana Wieler's tip was to go shopping with your character, to buy something that your character would buy, then keep it beside your computer as you write.

I've done this several times and it's been a great way to really think about my character and to discover subtle aspects of him/her I wouldn't have thought of before, but most of all, to inspire me and keep me focused. For instance, for The Trouble With Dilly, I went shopping for Christmas decorations as Dilly does. I went to the dollar store -- great research to see what was available, and specific Christmas decorations I saw there worked into the story -- and I went hunting for the biggest box of shining Christmas glass decorations. When I located one, I bought it and kept it beside my computer as I wrote the novel.

Dilly was an engaging if distracting character to shop with, easily diverted by bargains and quick to lose focus. For the current Dilly novel I'm working on, tentatively titled DILLY THE GREAT, the dollar store came in handy again. Dilly fancies herself a detective so I went there and hunted down a plain black notebook, (not pink, oh no, or rainbow coloured -- that is something her best friend Olivia would go for, but Dilly is serious about this) and a magnifying glass, and I kept these beside my computer as I wrote the novel. The magnifying glass is a great distraction to play with, and oh, it's in the novel too, and plays a pivotal role.

Thanks Dilly, for the shopping trip, even if you stiffed me for the bill.

You don't always need a traditional shopping trip to find that inspiring item to keep beside you as you write. I have a novel coming out next spring, THAT BOY RED, with HarperCollins Canada. It's inspired by my father in law's stories about growing up in rural PEI during the Depression. It's fiction -- and oh, the first time I write from the point of view of a boy. So I went to the Cumberland Heritage Village Museum, which is a fascinating place to wander around, with many buildings, activities and houses showcasing rural life in the 1920s and 1930s. During one of my visits, there was a fair on, and I brought home a shingle with my initials burned on it, as well as a strip of braided rags for making a rug. Both kept me company while I wrote that story.

For the Sower of Tales I didn't go shopping because it's a fantasy novel set in a fantasy world. But during one of my local walks (I always walk to dream and pound out stories) -- which is a gorgeous one partway through woods, then out into an open field which, during the late summer and Fall, has masses of milkweed -- I picked a few stalks of opening milkweed because they remind me of the story pods in the novel. They're not exactly alike, because the story pods have five petals that open, whereas milkweed two, but the silky seeds are very like the seeds of my imagined story pods. So, during the writing of that novel, through the umpteen drafts, I kept the milkweed in a mug beside my computer, the milky seeds a tangible link to the world I was writing about. When the novel was done and published, I took that milkweed with me back to the field and released the seeds. Yeah, I know, a metaphor for letting go and releasing that tale to the world.

So if you're struggling with your character and want to know her/him better, go on -- go shopping with your character. Or find something your character would love and cherish. And thank you Diana Wieler, for that fabulous tip.

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