How to build a character and, possibly, a novel plot in 10 minutes.

Script in Performance, taught by the international playwright Seamus Finnegan, brought to you by Duck-Face-the-Unknown (a.k.a. Willow).

A new term has begun and my new favourite (legally attended) class, is Script in Performance. The professor of this class, Seamus, is an Irish jem, and I feel privileged to be taught by someone so hilarious, artistic, outright and practical.

The first time he addressed us as a class was to say:

How many people smoke here – cigarettes, that is?
No one? …And you call yourselves writers? Alright, how many people smoke other substances?

SAM raises his hand.

Well at least there’s one honest man among us. Who here drinks alcohol?

EVERYONE raises their hand.

Oh thank fock for that. I was gettin’ worried.

We soon realised that the legend of his ‘fag breaks’ are no exaggeration. When Seamus wants a smoke, he will have his break when he sees fit and for as long as he likes. Of course, there’s only one person in the class (who attended on that day) who smokes, and upon his return he looked as though he felt estranged.

No offense to you, Sam, but that was the loneliest fockin’ fag I’ve ever had.

But on with bestowing his wisdom unto you, dear reader. The following is an exercise you can do to discover a new story, to develop a character you already have, or simply as a task to keep you writing and plotting.

Section 1

If you are seeking to make a new character, pick a profession from the list below. Though you may not find something you like, it’s surprising what you can create when you push yourself to be creative. As this isn’t a formal class, however, you may of course prefer to choose a profession not listed below. If you are developing a character you already have, skip to the next section.

List of occupations
Brick Layer
Shop Worker
Land Owner
Film Director

Section 2

You have a profession? Awesome.
Now write their name, their age, where they were born, and where they live.

Mine: a Priest, Isaac, 30, Bavaria, Germany.

Section 3

Having given your character a name, you’ve determined whether they are male or female. Some jobs are obviously gender-specific (unless you’re defying them), but either way, you chose a gender. You don’t have to know why, but picking a gender is important and the reasons behind your choice might be interesting. That’s for you to muse over though.

The main task.

Draw a box. In that box, write the character’s name.
On the right-hand-side of the box, draw an arrow outwards and write the word ‘family’.
On the left-hand-side of the box, draw an arrow outwards and write ‘society’.
On the bottom-side of the box, draw an arrow out and write ‘self’.
On the top-side of the box, draw an arrow out and write ‘universe’.

It should look something like this:

Now get a timer (you have a computer that must have even the simplest of gadgets, there is no excuse!) and set yourself 10 minutes. In that time, you will write under each heading all about your character, e.g. what kind of family the character has. How they perceive themselves and how the character thinks others perceive ‘him’. Then you will write how society really sees ‘him’, how the character interacts with society and what he thinks of it. And you will write his thoughts upon the world, his thoughts of life, his ambitions and what the world he lives in is like. Let the character and universe speak to you, don’t dwell or fret. You have 10 minutes. Go.

Here is what I produced in 10 minutes of class time:

Section 4

Alright, next task! If you’re looking at this from a novelist’s perspective, don’t rebuke this yet. I now ask you to write a monologue for the character you have just created. A monologue, you cry? But that’s for scriptwriters! Maybe, but this is a writing exercise, not a polished product.

Write a monologue. It can be about anything. It can be as long as you want. But remember, it’s a monologue and not a short piece of prose. There is a big difference in writing prose and writing a chunk of dialogue. Challenge yourself, because remember, this is about discovering the character not you as a writer.

Your character can be lying down, sitting, standing, swimming – whatever you want. Let the character decide, but put them in a situation. Just a brief situation, and then let your character talk to you.

It’s a bunch of fun when you don’t try to consume yourself in a plot you don’t necessarily have. The plot doesn’t exist, only the moment you are writing, and it can be riddled with as many mysteries and characters (preferable spoken about and not involved) that you don’t know yet.

When you’ve finished writing the monologue, you’re bound to have the whispers of a plot in the back of your mind. But that’s not the main reward of this task. The reward is to know your character better.

Once you’ve written your monologue, upload it for me to read (if you’re willing)! Post the link in the comments section below. I’d be thrilled to read what you produce from this.

Go, ever-budding writer! Give birth to a new, or more in-depth character!


P.S. I got bored in our seminar today:

My character Kiyoko, wearing the mask her lover made to stop her smelling magic and going insane.

All Writers Have A ‘Secret Unsalvageable Story’

I should think that all writers have a story in their skeleton cupboard. A tale they are either fond of or hide it in the attic somewhere because they can’t bring themselves to burn it. This novel tends to be either the first one they ever wrote or riddled with obvious personal parodies to their own lives.

My ‘secret story’ is both of these things and is about to be unleashed on the world. Good luck.

As all well-told retrospective stories go, it was the year 2003 and I was 11 years old. Having grown up as an avid Buffy the Vampire fan and in the company of Buffy fans, it was a shock for tiny Willow to move to another part of the country where no one shared her fan-girl-joy. For the next two years she spent her life mostly on the phone to her best friend, Natasha, discussing how life was awful without each other.

But there was salvation on the horizon. One day, a wonderful realisation struck Willow like a doe prancing through the African planes… She could immerse herself in fiction.

Abandoning the third person complex, I went on to unwittingly write my first piece of fan-fiction. I did not find out what fan fiction was until I was 16. Mitch and I were scared of each other when we were younger, which is a sad thing indeed. So, this awful first novel was written bit-by-bit and after each chapter I would call Natasha and read it to her.

Here is where the punch line comes. The main characters of this little ‘novel’ are Natasha and myself (using my middle name, because there couldn’t be two Willows). We became the heroes of the world of Buffy.

I hand wrote 50 pages of the thing but I cannot bring myself to re-read it! Despite this need to cringe as soon as I look the first page, the plot is reasonably sensible. Natasha ends up falling in love with Spike and I get Angel, possibly our only dispute about the series – who is the better man? And the ending is a quick war in the Hellmouth that suspiciously resembles Lord of the Rings: Return or the king, and lar-dee-dar, we save the world.

I even drew a front cover for it:

Because I’m a brave soul, I’ll include a scanning of one of the pages – both pages didn’t fit, I’m sorry.

It’s painful reading. The spelling makes Oxford babies cry at night and the constant jumping from place to place within the space of two sentences confuses even me.

At the age of 14 I rediscovered this story, lost in the mists of dust and socks. The first chapter is the good part. I read it and thought, ‘this isn’t so bad. I could rewrite it.’ So I did. Kind of. I lost interest half way through the chapter and it stayed incomplete for another year until again, it was rediscovered.

At the time, I was living with my mother, step-father and four younger siblings in Marnhull, which is a beautiful little area in the south of England. Chickens and horses plodded in the field outside my window and I had a window seat (exaggeration: it was just a giant window sill) to doze on. One sunny summer day, I decided to explore my characters. They could no longer be the ‘Willow’ and ‘Natasha’ I’d started with. 

So, I made my own note book out of ripped-in-half A4 sheets of paper, bound them together with a pipe-cleaner (and a paper flower for aesthetic reasons), and proceeded to write a brief background about them. As their back stories evolved, so did their friends, their family, their fears, their enemies until I had fifteen new characters, a new religion, gods and a creation story. With the help of my sister Melodi (we shared a room together) we thought up names, places and character details. Baklava Mountain was a joke between us because I’m a dork and she found it funny, and now it will forever stay. A baklava is a super yummy Turkish sweet.

For some reason I wrote my notes increasingly smaller until no one could read it but me. I have to hold the paper really close to my face to read it. I think if you zoom in enough you can read it too (not that you’d want to).

Every night I read what I had written to Melodi and during the time before she became a teenager, she was just as invested in the characters as I was, which is nice. When we lived in the Turkish mountains, she and I sat in grape trees and discussed character developments and justified plot points. Although she’s grown older now and doesn’t like to talk to me any more (because I’d kill her street credibility, el-oh-el) I have a lot to thank her for. She was a wonderful sound board, an engaged listener and put up with my obsessive talk about writing.

After three years of planning, drawing and writing I have a third draft of the story in the works. From ‘Natasha and Hannah, the Vampire Slayers’ it has become Scars in the System. An epic three part fantasy novel with original characters, intricate politics, a messed up religion, racial messages and six invented worlds. I hand wrote 400 A4 pages (still in multi-coloured ink, might I add).

Given the origins of this novel it is heavily broken and still badly written, especially towards the beginning. Sometimes I think Scars in the System will be edited until the end of time, but I’d like to think it could be publishable one day. But also I’m too afraid to tackle the monster it’s become. 

And that’s the evolution of my no longer Secret Story.

The main characters, drawn by moi, in their ridiculous costumes:
Kiyoko Feng and Natasha Dupont

Drowning in a Bottle of LIFE, more like.

I should be doing an essay this very second. Am I though?

What I am doing, however, is pushing through the first draft of my NaNoWriMo novel, Drown in a Bottle of Keys. I am that determined to pretend my essay will write itself. I have to say, with a little encouragement/writer’s block demolishing from Mitch, I have finally finished a chapter I did not know how to move forward.

I want to skip a whole chunk of integral plot progression/later twist hint/character development and straight to the parts that super duper make me excited (yes, there is drama-llama-blood-and-bombs involved, sssh). But I know I can make this awesome. Just, y’know, gotta write all of it, not just the key scenes.

University classes have resumed, hurrah! This means I’ll have research and lessons to share with you again. We’ll be writing dossiers soon, which I can’t wait for as we can write the dossier on absolutely anything in the whole wide world. A dossier, by the way, is a set of documents, esp. a collection of information about a person, event or subject. I’ve chosen to do mine on the conventions of the Steampunk genre in other literary works and how it relates to my own novel, Froxen Blue, and if my novel is ‘Steampunk enough’ or if this need for definition is unnecessary. I genuinely can’t wait. I’m stocking up research books already.

This essay on the other hand…

I don’t know what’s wrong. I’m simply not motivated. It’s not even a horrible essay and I’ve chosen the script – a film I thoroughly enjoy. Essay: ‘an analysis on the structure of Battlestar Galactica miniseries in light of relevant theories.’

I asked my cousin, “Mitch, what’s wrong with this essay?” She and her boyfriend both looked up and unanimously answered, “It’s an essay.” Very cute, aren’t they? But alas. This does not solve the problem of it not getting done.

Hmm… I know, instead of thinking of it as an ‘essay’, I’ll think of it as a ‘personal investigation’ that I want to share with people. Yeah, I think that might help! This is a personal endeavour. I’m so interested in Battlestar Galactica that I want to read through and deconstruct the script in light of what other screenwriters perceive to be a ‘structure that works’.

Paradigm. That word is following me around lately.

There is one new creation I would like to share; on the note of sharing. I’m currently in a video editing contest and I kindamaybelike my entry. The creation process was enjoyable and the outcome, like all my videos, could be improved but I’m intensely satisfied. If you’re interested, please do take a gander! The l’Cie Sanctuary.

Project Progress

Increasing the Weeks, Chapter 6……………………………..geeeh…
Froxen Blue audio book, Chapter 2…………………………..complete.
‘I am 16 going on 17’ reimagining…………………………….95% complete.
Scars in the System (a novel) writing bible…………………currently nothing but a mother-huge contents.
Final Fantasy Still episode III season 2………………………will be out soon.
Drown in a Bottle of Keys (a novel)……………………………Part I almost complete.
Beyond the Sky Steam (a novel)……………………………….Structure complete.
That essay……………………………………………………………to be continued…