Monday, April 21, 2014

Inhabiting Your Character or Historic Subject

How might we bring a greater awareness of our characters or historic subjects (George Washington, Harriet Tubman) to the page?

This is one of my favorite exercises as a writer—and one my students of all ages seem to relish and learn from. It’s playful and illuminating.

*Be your character or historic subject for a day (or at least a few consecutive hours).   Try to bring all your senses to it.

*Put on the clothes (or at least some) she would wear.  Eat the breakfast she would.  Do chores of the time (wash dishes, for example, or find a stable and pat the horses).  Play a game or read a book in the way your character would.

*Move like your character.  Let yourself inhabit that excited child or hungry dog or frightened slave. Skip down the street or sniff your dinner deeply or hide in a shed at night and peek out.  Walk as your character walks.  (For my picture book Underground Train, I rode the Metro in Washington, DC numerous times while inhabiting my child narrator, trying to experience the sounds and sights as she would.)

*Enact certain scenes, especially if they have intense action or emotion (within reason, of course).  For example, for an escape scene, have someone truss you up and feel yourself first bound and then trying to figure out how to escape.

*What does your character really like to do?  Do that!  What does your character hate to do?  Try that too, always being your character.

*Take on the physical proportions and usual posture of your character.  If your character is short, get down on your knees and see/experience as she would.  If your historic figure is tall, stand on a chair.  Is a character aggressive?  Puff out the chest.  Sad?  Let yourself slump.

*Jot down your reactions, thoughts, feelings, etc.  Weave into the writing or be conscious of as you revise.

*This can be done at any time during the writing process (prewriting, drafting, revising) to deepen a sense of character/historic subject and their world, provide more telling details, and heighten kinesthetic awareness.

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