You’re stuck, feeling dull, and browsing endless Pintrest boards for something to revitalize your muse. You want to be productive, but the longer you scroll down that page, the more numb your mind becomes. It’s ironic how you scratch that psychological itch to be productive by filling your brain with a blur of busywork.
To kickstart creativity, all you need is the loud chopping of a helicopter. The wind whips your hair around as you squint into a painfully bright searchlight. Over a loudspeaker, someone commands, STEP AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER! You obey quickly—who knows if they’ve got snipers trained on you. As you set it aside, the commanding voice continues:
- LOOK AT THE SKY. It’s dark above, but soon you realize that a few pricks of light have found their way through the clouds. The moon is rising. The residue of a lunar rainbow rings about it. Was all this here before? You never noticed until you backed out of your virtual world and rediscovered the real one. But that isn’t enough. The voice prods you again.
- LOOK DOWN. You run to the edge of the building (because obviously you were browsing Pintrest on a skyscraper roof like any normal human being) and below, in the buzzing lights of neon signs and street lamps, hundreds of people mill about. They stop at shops, with small children tugging on their coats. They shove their hands into their pockets and trudge with determination. Where, you ask? And why? Now you’re getting somewhere.
You’re expecting the next command, but it doesn’t come. As you turn back to the chopper, it rises, dips forward, and dives out of sight. You’re tempted to run after the mysterious apparition, but instead you notice that your computer is gone. A large yellow legal pad sits in its place. In all caps, italicized, two words read: BE CURIOUS.
As you stare across the cityscape you wonder yet again, where did that helicopter come from?
Have you ever written a character who is a vaguely average person, or a resemblance of you? Over the years I’ve edged away from that pitfall, but it still calls to me from afar: go for what’s safe and easy! But that leads to boring stories. One way to practice creating round, unique characters is to draw inspiration from people who aren’t you, your friends, or your family.
Look to strangers for inspiration. More specifically, look into photographers’ books of portraits. The beautiful book by Steve McCurry has hundreds of pictures. Hundreds of people. All unique and with a story to tell.
So here’s my advice:
- Obtain a portrait book, or flip through old National Geographic magazines at random.
- Pick three people. They don’t need to have similar global locations, nationalities, personalities, or anything. Some can be homely, and some bizarrely expressive. Your pick.
- Use visual clues for insight into this person’s character. Clothes, jewelry, tattoos, religious symbols, etc. will help you guess at their backstory. Many people carry their identities on their sleeves. They want to be known.
- Set them in room together, throw in some conflict, and see what they do. Are they waiting at an airport, watching their plane crash on the runway? Did they get into a fight during an AA meeting? It’s up to you!
After you’ve written out the scene, you might want to pursue this story even further. But if you don’t, please don’t throw it away. Set it aside, and come back after a few months. Maybe the story will be ripe for the picking, and you’ll be ready to pursue it to the end.
My opening question still stands: Have you ever written a character who is a vaguely average person, or a resemblance of you? How do you avoid this pitfall?
Even though you’ve probably read articles, blog posts, and even books on the art of writing, I’d like to add one more tip. Every writer needs this skill to set his or her writerly dreams into action. It floods the imagination with fresh inspiration, and opens new worlds for exploration. And what is it?
The ability to listen.
For a solid sub-point I should add, asking good questions.
People are very willing to talk about themselves, their lives, their experiences, their grandchildren—you get the point. They’re also excited to talk about their work or studies. Listen to your movies-obsessed friend long enough, and you can get the highlight reel from her film undergrad. You’re bound to hear lots of stories, whether they originate from a classroom of restless freshmen, or from the lore of Hollywood glamour.
Any good journalist knows this right off the bat. But novelists are a different breed. Less outgoing, more introspective. So to those of you who are waiting for inspiration to strike: get out of your house, away from your desk, and talk to people. The post office lady. The random couple that you see at Starbucks every week. The list goes on and on.
Always remember to listen.