Sep 4, 2007 5

Priming the idea pump (A character checklist shamelessly lifted from acting)

thinking hard

There are lots of tools the great actor has in her toolbox, but most of them really only gain utility with time. Script analysis, the ability to quickly access one’s emotions, physical flexibility, vocal projection, even memorizing lots and lots of text is a skill that can take years to learn.

But there is one tool that is pretty easy to use right out of the box: the character checklist. Exactly what it sounds like, the character checklist is a list of questions that, when answered thoughtfully, provide a wealth of information for the actor to draw from.

Writers stand to gain much from the character checklist as well. For the fiction writer, it’s a terrific way to sketch out a full picture of the character in your mind before writing, or even (oh yes) when you find yourself stuck. Let’s face it: most characters in fiction draw heavily on slices of the writer’s self; it’s nice to have a few other things to flesh them out into full-fledged bona fides themselves.

But another great use for the character checklist is to jump-start your own non-fiction writing. Bloggers have embraced the meme in a big way; it’s everyone’s favorite crutch when the well runs dry.

And pre-Web 2.0, the form was equally popular. From the emails that circulate with lists of likes, dislikes and quirky questions to fill in and forward on to the venerable Proust Questionnaire, people are endlessly fascinated with…themselves, yes, but other people, too. My favorite features in glossy magazines are usually the ones where the same five, 10 or 20 questions are asked of different people.

There are probably as many of these character checklists circulating among acting classes as there are memes proliferating across the blogosphere. I dug this one out of my old actor files, and it’s as good a place as any to start:

The Character Checklist from Colleen’s Old Acting Files (provenance unknown)

  1. Name
  2. Age
  3. Occupation
  4. Hobbies
  5. Marital Status
  6. Favorite Color
  7. Favorite Restaurant
  8. Favorite Song
  9. Favorite Movie
  10. Favorite TV Show
  11. Pet
  12. Bad Habit
  13. What I Like About Myself
  14. Who I Look Up To
  15. What Makes Me Laugh
  16. What Makes Me Sad
  17. How Do I Relax
  18. What Word/Phrase Do I Use Most Often
  19. Favorite Room In Home
  20. Goals
  21. Embarrassing Moment
  22. Favorite Article Of Clothing
  23. Pet Peeve
  24. People Close To Me
  25. One Word To Describe Me
  26. Favorite Holiday
  27. What Is Important To Me
  28. What I Can’t Do Without

The trick to making lists like these useful to your writing (and there’s always a trick) is using them thoughtfully and strategically, not just indulging in them as diversions (although that can be fun sometimes, too). Figure out the task you’re wanting to accomplish and then pick up your tool. Not all of the items will be useful for every piece of writing you’re sitting down to work on, but a surprising number will be, if you let mind wander to new and interesting places.

For example, let’s say you’ve got a blog edumacating people about widgets and you are plumb out of widget stuff to write about. You could…

  • Talk about how people shorten the life of their widgets with bad widget habits. (#12)
  • Describe your favorite widget use, and why. (#28)
  • Relate a horror story about a customer being widget-less in a widget-necessary situation. (#21)
  • Interview a few people in the widget chain of supply. (#24)
  • Link to your favorite widget scene in a movie on YouTube. (#9)

There’s no set way to put yourself in a frame of mind to see questions differently so that you can answer them differently, but one great trick is to imagine yourself sitting down with someone who knows nothing about widgets, or who thinks they know everything about widgets, and then look at those questions as though you’re being interviewed for a show or podcast or magazine that goes out to that target.

In other words, playact…like an actor!

xxx
c

P.S. If you give this a whirl, I’d love to hear how it works for you: communicatrix [at] gmail [dot] com.

Image by welcome_to_nunavik via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

This post gets a lot of traffic from StumbleUpon. Go figure. Anyway, if you clicked looking to find posts about acting, there are a ton of them here, two years’ worth of columns written for a major casting service’s newsletter here in L.A. And if you’re looking for more tips on writing and how to make it more awesome and less awful, check out the back issues of my non-sucky (I swear!) newsletter. Back to you, Chet!

Posted in: The Useful Ones

Tara Anderson September 6, 2007 at 8:36 am

As a former actor and someone who actually does write about widgets (although we like the wijit spelling), I loved this post and plan on using some of your ideas. Thanks for the help!

Priscilla Palmer September 7, 2007 at 2:46 pm

You have been tagged for The Personal Development List (See my site for details: There is a button in the side bar), I would love for you to participate.

communicatrix September 7, 2007 at 3:47 pm

Tara – I’m honored! You know I’m a big fan of the Lijit. And I think I’ve turned my pal, Gretchen, on to the goodness, too. Prepare for server overload–she’s got quite a following!

Priscilla – What a great idea! Not sure if I can add to such a terrific and comprehensive list, but I’ll give it a shot. And boy, am I honored to be on it.

Mary K September 7, 2007 at 9:51 pm

Another idea for priming the idea pump is your daily horoscope. These things are generally written so they seem to be written specifically for you, yet apply to someone else with the exact same birthday…Here’s an example:

It may appear as if you are sure about who you are and where you are going, but circumstances are not as they were in your original plan. Needless to say, this can be rather confusing. Still, you are up for the job as you rise to the challenge. Make certain to apply your logic to think your plan through, just as you would any puzzle.

Now just blog away!

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: