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October 08, 2008

Character sketching and word associations

In ICW last week we were told to pick someone in the class and write a piece using their character as a starting point: write a physical description, write what little we know about that person, and then twist that into the basis of a fictional character for whom we will make up a childhood background. Here's the (very short) character sketch I came up with.

A no-nonsense appearance, but still with a great sense of personal style. An open, smiling face that appears ready to welcome anyone in. A hard worker. But feeling under pressure, with the expectations of a previous generation laid upon her shoulders — she got a first class education, she must use it. Siblings surrounding her, competing with her. The rat-race in miniature. Parents pushing her, trying to get her to heights that they never reached and can only achieve through a diluted glory.

We were then told to write down one adjective that we felt encompassed all the ideas/thoughts/feelings contained within our character sketch, and the word I chose was "separate". What I found interesting was how people reacted to the piece considering that I had supplied them with my adjective prior to reading it out, especially when contrasted with the way they reacted to Joe's piece, as he told people what his choice of adjective was after he had read out his sketch. Having had Joe's piece read out to them before being given the adjective, people were able to formulate their own opinions of what his character sketch amounted to, and I don't think that I was the only one who had different ideas of what the adjective should have been when the one he then gave was "reticent". However, as I had given my adjective first it seemed that people had the word fixed in their heads, and as they were listening they were chalking up the story against the adjective, thus enabling them to pick out parts where they thought, yes, this character does seem as though she is separate in some way. Although I admit that this is certainly a far from perfect comparison, and my memory from last year is somewhat faded, the situation reminded me of Professor Docherty's lecture on the "dog dog dog" principle: because we are brought up being told that this creature is called "dog", we automatically comprehend that, yes, this thing is called dog, and we do not question why it should be called this and not something else. It seemed to me that a similar process occurred in the ICW class: because the other students had been presented with a word association they automatically defined areas of the character sketch that fitted with that adjective, as they knew that it must be there somewhere if I had told them so, whereas if they had not been given the word their minds may have veered off on a completely different course to mine.

All in all, I found it to be a very interesting excercise in exploring the relationship between writer and reader and also of the way exterior circumstances have such a heavy influence on the manner in which we receive writing.


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