One of the people who most impacted me as a writer was Monica Wood. As I wrote about here back in Februrary, I took a one-night workshop with her that helped to get my focus and career on track, and then was lucky enough to take a one week workshop on memoir that she taught. Monica is the author of The Pocket Muse and it's sequel, which are chock full of advice and exercises to get your writing going.
In her classes, Monica often does an activity where participants go around the room taking turns saying a word which then becomes part of a long word list. The exercise is to write a piece using as many of those words as possible. It's a great ice breaker for a class about to spend time writing together, and I've used it in the classes I teach. I have also adapted it for my writing. I put myself in the head of a character and just start listing words. The idea is to capture whatever words might pop into my character's mind. I use this as a way of building voice, literally creating a word bank for the character. However, the exercise often also provides a way of revealing aspects of a character that I was previously unaware of.
In my upcoming middle grade novel The Friendship Riddle, Ruth has lost her best friend to the popular crowd which is headed up by a girl named Melinda. My goal was to push a little bit past the typical mean girl characterization of Melinda. So, I decided to write her list. I wrote: Pony tail and realized that Melinda was an athlete who wore her hair in a high and mighty pony tail. I kept going with my list adding things that Melinda might notice or care about, and then I wrote two words in order: ocean and lonely. The book is set on a peninsula on the coast of Maine, so the town is surrounded by the ocean, and the ocean, I discovered, made Melinda feel small and lonely. Now, this did not redeem her completely to me or Ruth, but it was a window onto her personality, a crack that gives a view that she herself would probably not like to see.
Melinda's sense of loneliness does make it onto the page, but sometimes these lists are more for me to better understand my characters. They are part of the work that undergirds the world of the novel. I know some people use questionnaires or the like, but for me, this type of exercise is the best way to let my characters grow.