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  • Melissa Westemeier

taking our characters to the store

Today the Creative Writing Club I advise at school met. We're focusing on developing voice in our writing this year and over Christmas break I read The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. Incredible book--the main character awakes in the body of a different person and needs to solve a murder mystery, they have 8 days to do it. The day is repeated, like in Groundhog Day, the murder gets pieced together from all these various points of view, and the setting reeks of Agatha Christie. I was impressed by the complex and brilliant plotting, and especially the character development. Getting into the heads of that many characters and fleshing them out is no easy trick.

My copy of the book includes an author interview and Stuart Turton discusses craft, referring to the old trick of writing characters into ordinary situations to get a stronger sense of them. I've heard of this before, and it is good advice. If you don't know your characters well, there's a lot to be gained from writing scenes with them--not scenes that will land in your book, mind you, but scenes where you develop how they'll behave, interact, react, make decisions and move. Ordinary situations, like put a character into a birthday party, make them go grocery shopping, have them sit in a waiting room while they wait to be called for an appointment. I'd forgotten this wise advice as I've been writing the Bassville books so long and didn't really need to work on character development (there's a lot to be said for developing characters based on people you know in real life), but as I take the long view on a future project, I thought it would be fun to take a stab at something fresh.

Today I prompted Write Club to take a character they're writing in a current project and take them grocery shopping. The resulting paragraphs turned out pretty interesting, one girl got some good dialogue and worked out the dynamic of having two friends go to the store together (one is a wanderer, the other has the trip mapped out very specifically). Another girl dished her teenaged character into Costco with their dad's credit card. One boy used the scene to get a better handle on his character's depression and came up with a pretty cool metaphor using a shopping cart. So many parts of this grocery scene can give insight--how does your character pay? How do they choose what to buy? How do they interact with other shoppers? If the cart has a janky wheel, what do they do about it--get a different cart, keep pushing, abandon it mid-aisle--so many possibilities!

I decided to work on getting into the head of a horrible character, a selfish person who does not consider other people as they move through life. This is not my nature, so it was a good exercise to stretch into the mindset of selfishness. My character began by parking in a handicapped spot, using the tag they'd kept from their sister-in-law during a Christmas shopping trip months ago. Yes, this person is rude enough to hold onto a disabled person's parking tag so they can use it for personal convenience. I tried to dig into how they'd rationalize using the express lane with far too many items, and how they'd behave in a way insensitive to the shoppers lined up behind them. What do they think or observe about others in that spot? How do they justify their greed? This simple writing prompt gave me a surprisingly clearer view of how to write this point of view and I plan to play around with it some more. I think a birthday party next.

There you have it, reader. A book recommendation (if you love murder mysteries and inventive plotting, get this one) and a writing prompt (if you're trying get your head wrapped around an unfamiliar type of personality or just trying to get to know one of your characters better). As the snow begins to fall here, I will tuck myself in with a cranky middle-aged character developed by E.F. Benson named Miss Mapp (another read I recommend, not a mystery, but funny).

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Aileen Bartels
Aileen Bartels
Jan 11, 2020

I love Mapp and Lucia! I'm not much of a mystery reader, but this one does sound interesting.

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