Saturday, January 30, 2016

Creating Characters and Other Alchemy with Joe McGee

            I am an active advocate for writing exercises and for creative play. It’s the same mentality behind stretching before you run, work out, play sports, fight bulls, and/or engage in long-distance competitive yo-yo relay sled races – it gets you limber, loosens the creative muscles. Besides that, they’re just plain fun.

            The very act of writing, of storytelling, is magical. Think about it: We take letters, form them into words, and string those words into sentences, that when all put into some kind of sequence, create dynamic characters, compelling worlds, and fascinating stories. THAT is magic; a form of alchemy.

            But there is another kind of magic that happens when we create stories. Stories often begin as tiny seeds, or little sparks, embers of something that flittered through our space and, once nestled into the womb of our imaginations, grow and develop. We are surrounded by stories, or story material – characters and places and conflict and imagery – that offer interesting paths to pursue. It’s like finding the end of a ball of yarn and unraveling it, pull by pull….only in reverse.

            So, here’s what I mean….here’s the prompt to practice the art of what I like to define as “telescoping.” We’re going to start small, at the micro level, and work our way out. This is an excellent way to find and develop stories – start small and work outward.  It begins with a bumper sticker….

            Have a friend, or family member, or your pizza delivery person (if you have neither friends or family) tell you, text you, email you two bumper stickers they have seen or happen to like or remember. They should tell you NOTHING about the vehicle it was on, or the person who drove said vehicle. This is important. NO details. Bumper stickers only. The details are your job.

            Starting with one of the bumper stickers, begin with what kind of vehicle YOU think it might be on. Then begin to define it, starting with the exterior. Is it a rusted old Jeep, or a new Camry? What color? Dents or scratches? Broken tail light? Grungy Teddy Bear tied to the grill with barbed wire? What does it look like inside? Sombrero in the back window? Take out wrappers all over the floor? Nursing school textbooks spilled across the back seat? Does it smell like sour milk or strawberry air freshener? What’s on the radio? Loose change in the cup holder? Where did it come from? What did the driver buy last that produced the change? Follow the yarn…ask questions…ask questions based off of the answers to the previous questions.

            Then, move to the driver. Who are they? Start with the easy things: Age, gender, outward appearance. Then go deeper. What are their mannerisms? Behaviors? Who are the

people in their lives? Where are they going? Why? What is their history? Their fear? Their desire? Their problem? Keep building off of everything you discover along the way. Instead of peeling layers away from the onion, you are adding layers.

            Then, do the same process all over for the second bumper sticker. Have fun with it. Play with juxtaposition and possibility. Let your imagination loose. Once you have developed two complete characters, and the vehicles they are driving, see where their stories Venn. Where do their paths cross and what develops when they meet? How do their arcs collide and what story is produced as a result of this character mash-up? You may be surprised to discover an entire story waiting to be told simply by rolling these bumper sticker snowballs down the hill and watching them grow.

            At the very least, you’ll practice the art of developing ideas and fanning the flames of idea minutiae. We are surrounded by story potential. All you have to do is take hold of the string and start pulling…you may be surprised to discover where it takes you.

 This kind of thing can be done with anything: start small and build outward. What is in the envelope? What text did that man on the bus just read? Who owned that mud-splattered doll on the side of the road?

            Remember….story is in the details.


Joe McGee is the author of Peanut Butter& Brains: A Zombie Culinary Tale (Abrams, 2015), a picture book about being true to yourself and following your heart. He teaches writing at Rowan University and at Sierra Nevada College, where he is faculty in the low-residency Writing for Children & Young Adult MFA program. He has his MA in Writing from Rowan University and his MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is represented by Linda Epstein, of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. You can find him at or on Twitter, @mcgeejp 


  1. Awesome. Thanks for this post.

  2. I know - I thought so too. So glad Joe stopped by My Word Playground, and you, too! XOXO