A wonderful tool that helps me dream up new characters is the free write. Free writes can mean different things to different writers, but my free writes are a combination of Natalie Goldberg’s “first thoughts” (Writing Down the Bones) and Anne Lamott’s “shitty first drafts” in her book, Bird by Bird. The free write is a timed writing that riffs off prompts, such as “made fetid puddles,” or “yellow light,” or “knobbed knees.” The object is not to craft my writing, but to let my mind wander and keep my writing hand moving. And if I happen upon a juicy place, I exploit it.
I begin every writing session by writing three prompts on narrow strips of paper like cookie fortunes and add them to my prompt box, shake the box, then reach in. The prompt is “tangled hair.” What character in my new book would have tangled hair? I set the timer and write my heart out for twenty minutes.
There is no need to ever share a shitty first draft, but I often get together with other writer friends. We take turns riffing off each other, and each of them add prompts to the box. A box full of prompts is like a pantry full of canned peaches. I just need to remember to check my ego at the door, remind myself it’s not a writing competition, but a way to access something deeper in my storyteller’s psyche.
And when a character comes to life off the page, when she’s no longer a slave to my plot outline, but has her own agenda? Friend, that’s what I call magic.