My VCFA Lecture: Freewriting and Characterization

So the graduating class at VCFA have to give a lecture in their final residency. Sometimes people use their critical thesis as a basis for their lecture, but I’m choosing to do something completely different. I’m going to be doing a lecture on characterization, more specifically, on using freewriting to get to know one’s characters.

What do I mean by freewriting? Lots of different things. You might interview your characters, for example, or write about your protagonist from the perspective of a secondary character. You might describe the contents of their wardrobe, their refrigerator, or their trash. If you have a character who writes songs or poems, why not try writing a few examples of something they’ve written? There are so many possibilities here, but the point is always to learn more about your characters.

I have a lot of trouble figuring my characters out in general (especially my protagonists), which is why I picked this topic. And while I don’t think everyone needs to chain themselves to their desks right now and do all these exercises or their story/novel will fail miserably, I do think they can be useful tools when you’re getting started or feeling stuck. I think the better we know our characters the less floundering we are likely to do and god knows I have done a lot of floundering.

Anyway, if anyone reading this has any suggestions for freewriting exercises I would greatly appreciate all the help I can get. What do you do to get to know your characters?

4 thoughts on “My VCFA Lecture: Freewriting and Characterization”

  1. Amanda is like the goddess of freewriting (hello, ending the semester with 100 pages of freewriting!). I’ve had trouble freewriting in the past–the “interview your character” has never really worked for me (he likes movies, music, and long walks on the beach…). One thing that did help was writing a poem about a character. Also, Amanda told me to just make a list of words that popped into my head when thinking about a character–not censor or even think about it, just list works that come to you–then group those into roughly groups of 3 or so to see what kind of patterns emerged (e.g. “d-bag, a-hole, jerk”). And another was to do while thinking about a major event in a character’s life, which really helped me discover some of the underlying feelings (e.g. “abandoned, betrayed, disrespected”).

    And perhaps this isn’t what you’re looking for, but I often use three sites, Write or Die and Written? Kitten! or Written? Puppy! :lol:.

    Write or Die http://writeordie.com/#Web+App (and there’s a desktop version too) is a program that forces you to produce words. You set either a word limit or a time limit and start typing, and if you pause too long the screen starts flashing at you, and if you really pause too long you get this awful, horrible horn sound blowing at the top of your computer’s lungs. There’s also a Kamikaze Mode where if you pause too long, it starts deleting what you have written. This puts the pressure on to just write write write instead of editing as you go, a keystone of freewriting. You can copy and paste into a regular document.

    Written? Kitten! http://writtenkitten.net/# and Written? Puppy! http://nightowlr.com/writtenpuppy/puppytest.html are also online programs like Write or Die, however, Written? Kitten/Puppy! is a reward system rather than a punitive one. You specify a certain number of words as your goal, with a lower limit of 100 words, and then whenever you reach that, a random picture of a kitten or puppy is displayed, taken from flickr matching the keywords “cute” and “kitten/puppy.” It’s pretty much a ridiculous incentive, not timed but still periodically rewarding because it gives you a word count and you’re like “in 17 words, I get my kitty!” You can also just copy and paste your work into another document. It’s more fun than punitive, unlike Write or Die. I like to use them both depending on how I’m feeling. (Oh look! I just got my kitten!). My problem with Written? Puppy!, in addition to not being as catchy a name as Written? Kitten!, is that it doesn’t work in Chrome, even though in general I prefer puppies to kittens.

    All of these are free on the web, but you can pay for the desktop version of Write or Die, which I have and do use.

  2. That’s what Sharon told me so I actually interviewed Amanda a few weeks ago. I realized I didn’t have a clear idea of what people meant when they talked about freewriting and she gave me a whole list of different things! Anyway, I know what you mean about the difficulty of interviewing characters. I’m finding certain things help at different times and some more than others. I filled out a ton of character worksheets for my characters, which didn’t help that much but did give me one really helpful insight. So I guess you never know 😉 The word exercise sounds really interesting, though. I once did a similar thing for my characters in a different novel I was working on where I just gave each a page and then wrote whatever I could think of that made me think of them (colors, emotions, objects, etc) It was very enlightening. I think doing that for major events would be fantastic. Thank you 🙂

    And thanks for those websites! They sound hilarious. I would happily write for kittens. Hmmm, maybe I should put that on a sign: Will write for kittens…

      1. Haha, well, you know, it is my highest ambition in life to become a crazy cat lady 🙂

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