“It begins with a character…” Falkner reminds us, and so this is where we’ve begun our fiction writing practice this semester. Borrowing an activity from Ostrom, Bishop, and Haake, entitled “20 Questions: Character Witness,” I asked my students to breath life into their imagined characters through some quick responses to–yes, that’s right–2o questions. So, here’s the questions along with my responses…

  1. What is the exact age of your character—years, months, days?
    Bev is 47, but she looks 57. She was born in Joliet, IL on September 17, 1961 at 6:33 in the evening. It was 92 degrees, hot and humid.
     
  2. A place where your character is living or visiting begins to burn. The character has a few moments to escape. What does he/she grab—save?—before getting out of the fire and why?
    She rounds up her dogs–five Pomeranians–because she loves them more than her illegitimate teenage son who sleeps in the room next to hers above the shop.
     
  3. The character enters the room in which you are sitting. He/she sits down near you and places his or her left hand on the table or desk near you. Look at that hand. Describe it in as much detail as you can. Quickly. Go.
    Veiny. Spidery and bruised near the top of her wrist where they blew out her vein with the IV in the hospital the week before. Red nail polish, chipping. Nails chewed. Her palms are callused. Skin dry and flaking from the bleach she uses to clean the shop floor.
     
  4. This may against your nature, but let’s at least pretend you’re a real snoop. You have access to a wallet, a pocketbook, or a purse belonging to your character. You have an opportunity to go through it, and—being a snoop—you seize the opportunity. What’s in the wallet, pocketbook, or purse? Take the stuff out. Describe it. If there’s lipstick, say what kind, color, what kind of container. Money? How much exactly and how is it organized? Keep going into the details of the contents. Is there something about which the character would be especially embarrassed? If so, what? If not, what do you make of that?
    Her purse is large–about 16 inches across. The faux leather has long since lost its shape and the black veneer is flaking to expose the gray fabric beneath it. It sags like the jowls of the English bulldog her uncle Ned had when she was a child. The purse has a strap, but she never carries it over her shoulder on account of her back, preferring instead to grasp the strap wrapped twice around her hand, dangling as she stammers through the Walmart parking lot. Inside are piles of what she might need or what she has forgotten. A round bristle brush with hair knotted tightly around the plastic core. Smokehouse, rolled doggy treats with soft sausage centers, lying loose amidst gum wrappers, a snackpack of roasted peanuts, tampons, and her checkbook. Pantyhose, previously worn, bunched and bound into a tight ball. Four bottles of beige foundation cream. A lipstick–Maybeline, crushed mauve. A business card from Sally Beauty supply. There is a number penned on the back. A picture of her kid. One picture of each of her babies, the five Pomeranians–Chi Chi, Boo, Baby, Groucho, and Samson. The keys to her 2008 Grand Prix, leased. Two large bottles of prescriptios pills–Oxycontin and Vicodin for her back.
     
  5. You walk into a room in which your character is napping. Without waking the character up, you lean down, put your nose close to one side of your character’s neck—just below the ear—and sniff. Describe what you smell.
    Cigarettes, Poison (the perfume), and barbercide.

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