Jilly: Still Life – A Quick Trick For Writing Character

Small still lifeIf you had to choose half a dozen objects to depict your life or a certain aspect of your life, what would they be? And what would your characters choose, for themselves and for each other? I did this exercise for real a couple of weeks ago, and the result is the picture to the left of this text.

The story started at RWA in Atlanta last year. My husband and I went to visit a friend who lives in the city, and I fell in love with a painting I saw at her house. It looked like traditional still life, but on closer inspection it depicted my friend’s favorite foods – delicious Italian salami, fruit, provolone cheese and crackers, and a nice cold bottle of beer. It turned out that the artist was my friend’s mother, and she kindly agreed to do a similar painting for us.

Logistics were an issue, so we decided I’d take a couple of photographs for the artist to work from. The big question was, what to choose? I spent a whole day trying out different combinations before I settled on this picture. It’s not intended to make any kind of major statement about us; rather it’s in the spirit of my friend’s painting – a tongue-in-cheek composition of some of our favorite things.

There’s coffee from the wonderful HR Higgins (Coffee-Man) in Mayfair, made from freshly ground beans and served in our favorite mugs, and fantastic American wine from our friends at small, specialist wine importer The Wine Treasury with a selection of corks representing their impressive portfolio of wineries and our involvement in their company. The books are from our bedside tables. The biography of Einstein and the James Ellroy are a couple of my husband’s go-to reads; Loretta Chase, Jennifer Crusie, and Susan Elizabeth Phillips are mine. The red booklets in the front of the picture are opera and ballet programmes from the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden (the top one is Romeo and Juliet), capped with Green & Black’s organic chocolate and two pink flash drives which are back-ups of my WIP.

I found the exercise of selecting the items so interesting that I decided to do it for my characters. I thought I knew them really well, but it made me prioritize and I found it quite challenging. I followed it up by looking at each character from the other’s point of view, and to my surprise it showed up some holes in my understanding of my characters. Listing the items is a simple exercise, much quicker than collaging, so I’m planning to add it to my repertoire permanently. I’m also thinking that it’s something I could revisit at every turning point for protagonist and antagonist, and it would be a great measure of how the story values are changing.

Here’s my hero, Ian McKenzie Kinross at the beginning of the story, from his own perspective and from that of the heroine (Rose).

Ian would choose:
• Some sprigs of his clan plant (when tartan was outlawed in Scotland after the 1745 rebellion, clansmen wore a plant badge as a sign of defiance and identity);
• His late father’s watch.
• A hand-woven lamba (traditional cloth from Madagascar) made for him by local village women to commemorate the opening of the Kinross Foundation’s first school.
• Copy of the inaugural menu from his best friend Rob’s restaurant.
• Annual first-class rail season ticket between Inverness and London.
• His phone.

What Rose would choose for Ian:
• Pile of glossy magazines with Ian’s picture on the cover, usually with a beautiful woman.
• Large pile of shining golden guineas, spilling over everything.
• Calculator.
• Large stage-style mirror framed by light bulbs.
• Bottle of malt whisky and jar of Scottish heather honey (her impression of his voice).
• Bolt of vintage Persian blue fabric (the color of his eyes).

The exercise works particularly well for Ian, because what you see is not what you get, and right now Rose is taking him at face value. I’ll do it again when I get to the end of my re-write; I’m not there yet, but I have a pretty good idea that the last two items on Ian’s list will change, and the first four or five on Rose’s.

What would you choose for yourself, or for your characters?

23 thoughts on “Jilly: Still Life – A Quick Trick For Writing Character

  1. (-: Very fun! My picture would have to be photoshop — I don’t see how I could get the cats and the dogs to sit still in the same picture (-:. Add my husband’s guitars, piles of books for me, and Ghana chocolate bars for the whole family, and a couple of those microfiber blankets that feel like plush velvet (midnight blue and turkey red), and you have a lovely afternoon in, I think! I would love a picture like that.

    I am surprisingly hazy about what Hadiz would want in his picture. He’s a guy with no baggage, and that has to change. He’s kind of got the same feeling that I get with Terry Pratchett’s Vetinari . . . and Vetinari is a side-character and very cold, so that’s all well and good for Vetinari, but it’s not great for Hadiz. What would a guy made of fire want? (And I still have to work through what “being made of fire” really means . . . .) I wonder if he’d keep candles like some people keep parakeets? Hmmmm. Food for thought, this post! Thanks, Jilly!

    • Your picture sounds lovely, Michaeline, warm, cozy and relaxed.

      I’ll be very interested to know where you get to with Hadiz – the idea of him keeping candles as pets throws up some great imagery, more fun than salamanders or dragons. Maybe candles are living things, down there in his world?

  2. What a great idea Jilly. I’m not sure off the top of my head what Michael or Abigail would want in their pictures. but this sounds like a good exercise to get my writing session started tomorrow.

  3. This is an interesting exercise. I think I to try to this. It would also be quite cool to do with my husband and see what we would pick out for each other.

    A general comment to all you ladies on this blog: This is really becoming my favorite writers’ blog. I really, really, enjoy your posts and I’m always happy to see that you’ve published something new when I open the reader in the morning.

    Keep up the good work! And thank you!

  4. Great exercise, Jill! I especially like the idea of doing it at each turning point to show how your characters are arcing. I’m actually teaching a class at the local writing center on Plot and Structure. The last week deals with character arc and, if you don’t mind, I’m going to incorporate this into the curriculum.

    • Of course I don’t mind, Jeanne! I think it could work really well in this context (hope so). I’d be interested to hear how it goes.

  5. It’s a 3-week class. Week 1 was structures (linear, quest, frame, pattern and custom structures) and conflict boxes. (Homework: create a conflict box for your novel.) Week 2 is tomorrow–Acts, Sequences, Scenes, Beats and Turning Points. Your piece will come in Week 3: Character Arc and Subplots. I kept the class small (7 students) so we could talk about what people are working on and the feedback has been really positive so far. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

    I started playing around with this for Dare and Belial and it pointed out that, although I already feel like I know Dare better than I ever did Dara, I still have a ways to go with her. It’s very clear that the things they prize changes as they change, though. This is great!

  6. What a fun exercise! I’m going to try this. For my characters, what would Phoebe have? Her dog, poodle skirt, bike, laptop, and house key. For Chase: football jersey, car. Hmmm. Must work on Chase.

    • Glad you like it, Kay! Wouldn’t Phoebe have something CIA-related (her suspended security clearance, say) or does her laptop count for that? Or is that the ‘tell’ that her job is not as dear to her heart as she thinks it is?

      Good luck figuring out Chase!

      • Yeah, I was thinking the laptop was the CIA link. This exercise is better than collage, mostly because I don’t have to do anything art related. What the heck is Chase up to?

  7. I, too, will try this exercise. In just thinking about what Susannah would have, it’s bringing home the point that Susannah doesn’t have much backstory (Kat and I discussed this a lot while she was in AZ this past week). It doesn’t mean her backstory needs to be in the book, but there has to be something driving her. I suspect it’s going to lead to changes to my story (again! ARGH!), but they’d be positive changes.

    What a great idea, Jilly! Thanks!

    • Pleasure, Justine, hope it’s useful and that the changes are good ones!

      You probably have more than you think. Susannah’s going to have something from her parents? I’m guessing Nate might be easier as he’s driven by his past. Something from his regiment?

  8. Wow, this is hard. When you say half a dozen, is that a real limit? I don’t think I can choose just six things for myself or even for my characters. Also, interestingly enough, as much as I love to read and write, when I thought about the things I would choose for myself, neither books nor writing paraphernalia come anywhere near my top six. I wonder if this should worry me.

    Here’s what I’ve got for myself: my inline skates, my great-grandmother’s gold watch and the photo of her in her Victorian clothes wearing the watch pinned on (I am a dead ringer for her- some people won’t believe it’s not me in costume), the tacky bright orange stuffed parrot my husband won for me at a carnival when we were 16 that still sits on my shelf, the basket woven from ribbons of clay and decorated with roses that my daughter made for me when she was 9, my coffee maker, one of the containers I use for raising Monarch butterflies, a capsule from the Girl Scout letter-boxing activity I ran, the cat toy that has been a favorite for every one of our cats, my hiking boots, and the three-musketeers-style hat with the long plume I wear to the Renaissance Faire every summer.

    That’s ten things and I couldn’t cull one of them. And no writing stuff. Hmm.

    • You can set your own rules, of course, Jennifer. The idea is to keep it to a relatively small number because it makes you prioritise, which makes it illuminating; clearly for you that’s ten things 🙂

      Interesting to see that they’re about equally split between important people and rewarding activities, and very interesting that writing stuff doesn’t make the cut!

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