Thursday, October 21, 2010

Creating Character Traits and Banishing Brainstrain Blues

The fellow holding the floor at last night's writer's group is a brain trainer. He makes a comfortable living instructing folks of all ages and abilities how to get rid of brain flab and turn those little grey cells into a lean, mean thinking machine.

As a fiction writer who spends a lot of time getting into the mind of my characters – before they take over and run me – Matthew Barrett showed short-cut brain exercises to tweak the thought process so the cut-to-the-chase “caveman” mentality does not override creativity, with practicality.

Physically Matthew, who directs kids and corporate clients to train thier brains to retain information by skewing basic logic patterns, is not a powerful dominating figure. He later admitted to having an innate fear of meeting people on a face-to-face basis. But, by training his brain to be accept he knows more about his subject than his audience, he is confident enough to control and hold center stage.

It was one of the many exercises he explained and espoused during an hour-plus talk and interactional session conducted during the dinner hour at the noisy McAlsister (Scottish/Jewish?) Deli in Fleming Island, just south of Jacksonville, Florida.

He cajoled, teased and tested his audience with facts, fables and riddles before setting them up for a “writerly” task; create a cast of characters for a story which may never be written.

He distributed sheets of paper containing a dozen pre-printed blank data files with the following sub-heads:

Notes:(i.e.)loud,Walmart Greeter,.......
Kleptomaniac, Hooker...etc..............

Names were selected at random from a telephone book (which pegged an instant image in many minds) and, by working the room, additional data was extracted from writers present – and that's when the fight started (joke).

The cardboard characters created by names began to take on “living” persona as they acquired layers of personality. Mini-groups within the gathering humorously or dolefully created and voiced their own soap-opera versions of actions/reactions likely amongst the make-believe cast presented.

Within the space of twenty minutes or so a gathering of writers were discussing, some quite heatedly, the life stories and styles of figments of their collective imagination.

All the brainchildren of a mild mannered brainiac adept at teaching CEO's how to control short-term memory loss so they can remember – where they put their reading glasses.

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  1. Hi Jack

    The one thing I always tell writers is you should know everything about every character, boht major and minor, who appears in your tale.

    I use a spreadsheet to keep track of it all and I set up a new sheet for every book I write.

  2. Hi Jack. I use mind mapping to help me develop a topic and can apply it to characters too.

  3. Great synopsis of the session, Jack. I especially appreciated the underlying point that Matthew Barrett was making: that our certainties and expectations often get in our way. The exercise forced us into out-of-the-box thinking mode. It was fascinating to watch and listen as one writer after another launched a zinger into the profile of a character we were imagining.

    Glad you enjoyed the session. Looking forward to your talk next month on why and how books are going to outlast all of us. Thanks! Maureen Jung

  4. Thanks, Jack!

    Yes, it's a fascinating method to watch, and I loved using it with an experienced group of writers like all of you! From the one-handed orphan with a blanket to the manic-depressive mountain climbing couch potato, you all made some wonderfully vibrant and memorable characters--and had fun doing it!

    Take your brain--God's not handing out spares! (