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developing a character with 20 questions

“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.

  1. Describe one meal or type of food your character really likes to eat.
    Hot wings–specifically, the ten wing combo from Wings and Things.
  2. Describe the social, political, and economic background of one of the character’s parents, one of the character’s siblings, one of the character’s friends, or one of the character’s rivals (defining “rival”—antagonist—in a way that makes most sense to you).
    Bev’s father, Anthony, is a second generation Intalian American. He grew up on the south side of Chicago and later moved to Joliet when he married Bev’s mother, Therese. He opened a barber shop on West McDonogh Street in 1958. He was a hard working man, cutting hair in that shop for twenty years. It closed in 1978; he blamed its failure on the changing neighborhood. Anthony was a racist and made little attempt to hide it in the home when Bev was growing up. Anthony was a mean drunk at home, especially in the final years of his business. He had a stroke in 1983 and currently resides in a nursing home on the north end of town. Neither Bev nor her mother, Therese, visit.
  3. Describe one scar—it can be a very tiny one—on your character’s body and how it was acquired.
    Bev has a six-inch scar on her back from surgery to correct three herniated disks following an automobile accident six years back. She suffers from chronic pain still and manages it with a series of prescription pain killers, some of which are narcotics.
  4. Describe in detail one thing your character would enjoy reading or some kind of text your character would enjoy examining—a text that might exist within the text of your story.
    Bev doesn’t read much. She’ll pick up a tabloid in the shop when it’s slow, but mostly she watches daytime TV. She’s disappointed with the disappearance of some of her favorite tabloid daytime talk shows–but still tunes in for Jerry Springer, Montel Williams, and Maury Povich–and hopes that they won’t be canceled anytime soon.
  5. Your character laughs at something. What is it? Exactly why does your character think this thing—joke, event, sight, whatever—is funny?
    Bev doesn’t laugh as much as she makes snide remarks at people’s misfortunes. She doesn’t have much to laugh about these days; her business is struggling. She suspects it will one day fail much like her father’s did. She doesn’t think she’ll ever get out of this little less-than-town she’s spent most of her adult life in–just minutes from the depressed town she spent most of her childhood in. Brian, the guy she’s been living with for the past three years can sometimes make her laugh with his own inadequacies. She enjoys seeing weakness in people and she’s quick to point out Brian’s weaknesses with a chuckle.
  6. You are invisible; your presence is unknown by your character. You are observing your character look into a mirror. Describe your observations.
    She looks at her hair mostly. Bringing her hands to it momentarily and then dropping them again, as if giving up. If she makes momentary eye-contact with herself, she sneers and turns quickly to other chores.
  7. “France.” Your character hears that word. What, if anything, comes to your character’s mind? Be as specific as you can.
    Snobs. America-haters.
  8. “I remember…” Your character says or thinks these words. Now provide a list of at least five things your character remembers.
    I remember how daddy used to cut my hair in the shop. The men would watch. I remember the old house in summer. I remember daddy’s breath. I remember meeting Brian. We were so fucking drunk. I remember Frank, Joey’s father, but he sure as shit don’t remember me.
  9. Describe one not-so-obvious, not-so-easily detected nervous habit of your character. Toe-tapping and drumming-of-fingers on table are probably too obvious, too conventional, for example.
    She picks at her skin–particularly where it is dry, but dry or not, she’ll scratch at her skin–often the inside of her forearm. The skin there is perpetually raw.
  10. A sound that’s especially pleasing to your character—what is it? Why is it so pleasing to the character?
    The song “If Loving You Is Wrong I Don’t Want To Be Right” by Luther Ingram. It reminds her of when she was a child and things were right with her father.
  11. What is your character’s middle name, and what is the brief history—if any—of that name?
    Mariela. It was her maternal grandmother’s name.
  12. Describe (compare/contrast) the way in which your character sneezes in private and in public.
    Public or private–there is no difference in the sneeze. She makes no attempt to stifle the sneeze.
  13. Who was the first American president of which your character was aware, and what is one image or memory your character has of this president?
    She remembers her father cursing Lyndon B. Johnson for his liberal ideas and his “Great Society”–encouraging the races to mix and forgetting about the hard working white Americans who made the country what it is. Bev harbors the hate her father had.
  14. Describe a piece of jewelry your character might wear or buy for another person or admire or dislike. (It’s all right to answer all four options, too.)
    She doesn’t wear jewelry; she finds it all garish–especially on women. A man can wear a ring, though. A man can do that.
  15. Provide one more telling piece of information about your character.
    She has 1.2 million dollars sitting the bank–a settlement from the accident. Brian doesn’t know about the money.

Boy, that was a little harder than I thought it would be. Twenty questions is a lot, and I quickly realized I didn’t know that much about the character floating around in my head. Actually, as I began answering the questions, it was as if I didn’t really want to know here anymore. I didn’t feel comfortable spending time with here. Weird. Anyway, this isn’t even the assignment I gave my students, but rather just an exercise to get to the assignment where they were to introduce a character into a scene. I’ll see if I can get to that.

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