Thursday, April 8, 2010

Character Alphabet

An extremely quick post tonight, as I've just discovered that my toddler has somehow managed to destroy the brand new power cord of my MacBook (argh!), and that while I was putting her to bed my dear husband was unwittingly eroding the last of my power supply down to a paltry 20 minutes by surfing the sports pages (ARGH!).

The good news is, I already knew what I was going to post about tonight- it's the April exercise over in the Writers Exercises folder at the Compuserve Books and Writers Forum. You can find the prompt here. It was developed by one of the awesome participants there, Ron Wodaski, and I must say, from the first minute I saw it I knew it was going to be a revelation- and I wasn't wrong.

The basic idea is, you take each letter of the alphabet, and for each one you write a statement in the vein of "A is for... x". In the case of my exercise, it was "A is for advance". You then write a sentence or a paragraph from your character's point of view in which that word appears.

So, for example:

A is for advance. It was all they'd heard about for weeks and weeks, all over the papers. The Germans were advancing on Belgium, the Germans were advancing on France. The whole town was already wound tight as a spring, and every time the paper came out people got more and more worked up. It was only a matter of time before Australia had to throw her hat in the ring, but even then it was nothing to do with him. All that advancing was on the other side of the world. He had better things to do.

I know Ron originally meant for the exercise to be done in first person as more of a free association thing, but I wrote all of mine as they'd appear in the story. And I tell you what, a lot of them might. There's no real trick to this exercise- every time you get to a letter, you have to think of a matching word which is relevant to your character. Even the process of doing that makes you think creatively about that character.

This exercise took me back and forth throughout every part of my story, and I learned a whole lot of things I didn't know before. It was particularly good for building tiny details of character backstory- little things that mean something to the character even if they don't have a big bearing on the story.

I'm going to share a few of the more interesting ones that I came up with (ironically before I get to post them up in Exercises, thanks to my power issue). If you choose to do the exercise, please post your favourites in the comments so we can all check them out! And, erm- very few of mine were just one sentence or paragraph in the end :)

D is for drills.

He kept his mind off the thoughts that lurked around the edges by putting his all into the most boring days of his life. Drills, drills and more drills. Marching drills, rifle drills. Day after day. He wondered if battle was going to be just like that- an orderly marching from here to there, everyone dropping to the ground as one and sighting up their rifles; the sergeant-major shouting the same things over and again. Left, right, left, right.

If he kept this up for too long, he wouldn't remember to shit unless someone else told him to do it.

H is for hung.

Some nights he just lay there, staring at the roof, while his mind replayed the same thing over and over again, like a movie reel gone mad. He didn't blink, he didn't move. It seemed, most nights, like he didn't even breathe. He just watched and watched as Len stood up in the shellhole in France, ready for the fight Bill had just started, silhouetted against the night sky that flashed and flared with artillery shells as the battle raged all around them. And then it all ground to a halt- all the shattering booms of the guns, all the rattling replies from the other trenches- time itself just stopped as Len's mouth fell open and he looked down at his chest. A flare dropped lazily from the sky nearby, tumbling slowly, end over end, bringing daylight to the night, and Bill could see a ribbon of shining red snaking down his brother's chest, pouring like wine from a bullet hole.

And Len just... hung there. Hung there, barely touching the ground, his mouth working, open and closed, and then... he fell.

Time kick-started again, the flare died away, and Bill was standing over his brother's body, slumped face-down in the sick watery mud, and the world was exploding around them. Over and over again, he saw it. Len hanging there like a puppet, on the brink between life and death- there one minute, and then... gone.

L is for lost.

Back home, he hadn't needed to explain anything to anyone. They all knew him, and they all knew what had happened to him and his family. There was a blessed relief in that, in being able to walk down the street and know that he didn't have to explain a thing to anyone, or make any excuses. But here in London, after so many years of not talking, he found himself in a world he couldn't relate to at all.

Down in the Underground shelter he was swimming in people, and the moment they heard his accent, they wanted to dissect him and get inside his head. Why are you here? What happened next?

He was an amusement to them, and his stories seemed to thrill them and horrify them all at once. He never had a moment of peace. And so he found himself looking for the right way to sum up all that had happened so he could deliver it fast, without having to relive it all again every night. The only word that seemed to fit was... lost.

He lost his best friend, his brother, his wife. And then he found Jared, and it looked like he'd gained everything back. But now Jared was lost, missing in action, and now Bill himself was more lost than he'd ever been. Lost in a sea of strangers, trying to make them understand what it was like to be him. He didn't think they'd like it. God knew he didn't.

And lastly my favourite- I've been trying to write this scene for a long time. It's nowhere near what it'll be when I work on it properly, but it's a start.

S is for starlight.

Kit had showed him how to wish on a star when they were both little tackers. She said her mother had showed her, before her mother went away. You had to wait until the last light of the day, when the clouds were just a purple smear against the darkening blue of the sky, and then if you watched long enough and hard enough you'd see the stars start to pop out of their hiding places. You had to be quick- you had to get the very first one. And then you had to whisper, "Starlight, starbright, first star I see tonight. Wish I may, wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight."

It didn't always work, but then he figured some questions were too much for a simple star. He still asked for the same thing every night- he just wanted her back. Just for one night and one day. For one minute. He sat on the back verandah and pulled the kid in tighter. The older he got, the more Jared looked like his mother. With his shock of golden blonde hair, just like hers, maybe he was sent by the starlight as an answer to Bill's prayer.

Jared suddenly sat bolt upright. "There!" Up over the tallest gum in the yard, a tiny light was winking out of the sky.

"Quick, then."

Jared furrowed his little brow- it was serious business, getting this right- and started out. "Starlight, starbright, first star I see tonight. Wish I may, wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight." He sat back, grinning.

"Good job, mate." Bill didn't need to ask what he'd wished for. He knew from the lithograph Jared carried everywhere, clutched in his grubby little hand or jammed in his ratty shorts pocket, that they only wanted the same thing.


  1. <<"Good job, mate." Bill didn't need to ask what he'd wished for. He knew from the lithograph Jared carried everywhere, clutched in his grubby little hand or jammed in his ratty shorts pocket, that they only wanted the same thing.>>

    Waahhh! Claire, you kill me with this story! Every. Time.

    Interesting exercise. I'd love to see what every one comes up with.

  2. Ah, these snips are so good, Claire. I'll have to get on over to the Forum and check out this exercise.

  3. Ooh, Claire, you included three of my favourites!
    I really can not wait to read Bill's story in it's entirety - between hard covers, of course :-)

  4. Hi Claire, I'm just working through mine now and I've gone the same route as you with 3rd person, because that's the way I write. I'm using Jack as my character because he's still the one I have most trouble knowing.
    I haven't done many letters yet but "F" just jumped at me. I'll share that. It's a bit naughty.

    F is for figging. Figging is a BDSM practise involving a butt plug made of root ginger, bondage and spanking. Meredith liked to play strange games like that. It was arousing and exciting and Jack had enjoyed it immensely at the time. Jack used to own handcuffs. Meredith had liked those. He cannot imagine Harry or Emily even knowing what figging is. Maybe F should have been for family, this strange conglomerate of people he lives with and who love him, but somehow, knowing that Harry and Emily would never even be able to imagine something like figging is wonderful, that says much more about him now and how far he has come in his life.


  5. Holy moses, Jill! Every time I read your work I learn things I've never even imagined before (g). I must thank you for educating me, the public at large, plus of course all my older family members and family friends who read this blog ;)

  6. That's it, there is NO way I'm making Ginger Chicken for dinner tonight. Nor the burritos -still too...evocative. Soup! Soup sounds safe...