Writing: Using Physical Objects for Charactersation

My friends are starting to feel a little concerned, and for reasons which I’m sure the friends of ‘normal’ people (ie. not writers) would know nothing about.

Reason 1: Concerned that I might be starting to love a bunch of wooden pegs more than I love them.

Reason 2: Concerned that I may be happy to accept a bunch of wooden pegs as substitutes for children.

Hard at work, I swear!

Before you phone up the local looney bin, let me explain. Whilst at Winchester Writers’ Festival earlier this year, I attended a talk given by the author Adrienne Dines. She spoke about writing endings for stories, and how understanding your characters’ motivations can drive the plot to its resolution. To illustrate this, she had a box of little puppets. She got some of them out and stood them on the table, and moved them around to show alliances between characters and how they can change as the story goes on.

I loved the puppets as a way of visually representing a work-in-progress. Writing about characters on paper is one thing, but actually seeing them, holding them, and putting them in their places, is another altogether.

Some of you may know I’m currently working on a retelling of the fairy tale ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ Well, this has completely exploded, and a few weeks ago it began to turn into a headache. I had pages of notes and diagrams, half-finished pages of experimental prose, timelines, and lots of doodles that weren’t getting me anywhere. Basically, I was stuck. And I didn’t know what to do.

Luckily, Winchester is completely bat-shit insane. I swear, only here would you find a market stall that sells antique laundry equipment. Amongst the looms, wicker baskets, irons that look more like torture devices, and boxes of vintage washing powder, I stumbled upon these:

Old-fashioned wooden pegs, also called ‘dolly pegs’ because they look like tiny dolls. In fact, as a child mum had a bag of these and she used to make little clothes for them and I used to play with them and make up stories. Seems I have progressed little, as now in my twenties, I am still making up stories with peg dolls.

When I found these I remembered playing as a child, but I also remembered Adrienne’s talk and had one of those ‘aha!’ moments. I didn’t have any puppets, but I realised I had found a fine alternative.

I got a marker and wrote the names of each of my major characters on a peg. Then, working from my notes, I messed around with them. I arranged them in various groups, and wondered what the implications of those groupings would be. I put characters together that I hadn’t thought of putting together before, and split up others that I was sure were meant to be inseparable. For the first time, I could see all of the potential situations available to me.

This photo was taken before I gave them faces…

Exploring the relationships between my characters in this way helped me to become unstuck. I found that I didn’t even need half of the notes I had made anymore — the story was going in new directions, and I was figuring it out in a much clearer way than getting tangled up with hoards of paper.

Whenever I’m working on the story, I carry the pegs with me. I get odd looks in the library when I pull them out and line them up on the desk, and when one falls over (that clatter of wood falling on wood is traitorous). My friends are now convinced I’ll become a crazy peg lady instead of a crazy cat lady. But hey, at least I’m getting some writing done! No matter what it takes, however insane your methods are, as long as the writing gets done then it’s all good.

Having some kind of visual stimulus can be extremely helpful when writing. For me, the pegs are a physical representation of my story. It doesn’t just exist inside my head; it’s there in front of me, and I can manipulate it with my hands instead of my brain. I think it’s important for writers to make our processes as interactive as possible. If all you do is think and write things can become dull, but if you have something else, something not paper/pen/laptop related, then it’s a refreshing change.

So, if you’re having trouble pegging your story down (had to get that phrase into this post somewhere, sorry not sorry) then this could be a technique that may help you. Just, be careful not to get too attached to your pegs. Especially if you have to kill off a character…

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Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in Creative Writing, and is Senior Editor for Folklore Thursday. She loves travelling and collecting stories, and spent 15 months living in Japan doing this alongside teaching English. Amelia blogs about folklore and fairy tales at The Willow Web. You can follow her on Twitter @amyelize.

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