Freewriting Prompt: The Three Stooges/The Three Musketeers
As writers we’re often used to nurturing characters from a seed idea and fleshing them out as they go along, getting to know them with each new situation we throw at them and beefing them up whenever they start to look weedy.This is all very well, but in their first stages, when the character’s personality is a mere sprout with one puny leaf, this can mean that characters tend to look pretty one-dimensional.
We’re already familiar with some methods for developing our existing characters (such as Julia’s Proust Interview), which really get to the roots of what makes our character tick and elevates them to the blossoming glory that they will eventually be with a drenching of personality fertilizing questions.
However, in some cases we might not have the time to wade through the entanglement of our characters’ troubled childhoods. We need interesting characters, and quickly! Not only that, we need characters who will bounce off each other, and not just bumble around like a train full of door-to-door salesmen.
Let’s say that we have just discovered a competition deadline which is coming up in… Two Weeks! We haven’t got any story to hand which we could just polish up and send out. We need something quick! There ain’t no time for a whole course of psychotherapy for several characters. We have a vague idea of the storyline or setup, but nobody to act it out.
This is an exercise I’ve developed over the 8 different 48 hour film projects I’ve been involved in, of which I’ve written 5. One of the many things I’ve learned over the years is that it’s damn difficult to write several well-rounded characters between midnight and 4am if you haven’t done any preparation. In practice this means having some “ready made” characters to hand.
To avoid, for example, having to shoehorn a well pre-developed cowboy into a serious science fiction film (possible, but not a very general-purpose approach) one way is to develop some character archetypes.
It goes like this:
Pick 3 “character archetypes” (it’ll work with any number, I just used 3 because I had 3 actors, and it’s quite a manageable number).
Try to pick them so that they are complementary, to form a kind of triangle of personalities.
They should be:
- General (no names, jobs, ages, etc)
- Suggestive of a whole group of character traits
- Probably preceded by the word “The”
Here are some examples:
- The Depressive
- The Obsessive
- The Know-it-all
- The Ecstatic
- The Painfully Shy
- The Brainbox
- The Thug
- The Empath
- The Hippy
The three I used were:
- The Brain
- The Brawn
- The Lit Fuse
Once you have them, flesh them out with a sentence.
The Brain: They are clever, controlling and cunning.
The Brawn: They are dumb, kind, well-meaning and strong.
The Lit Fuse: They are always on the edge and likely to go off at any time.
Chucking them in situations
Next you write a selection of possibilities for different situations. Don’t go into detail here. The point is to get used to sticking the characters in a variety of situations. If you’re having trouble, perhaps your archetypes are too specific, or your situation is too prescriptive. Loosen it up at this stage.
This is the point that you would start when you’ve got your “remit” – our imaginary competition deadline in this case. Say the competition has a theme of “Ancient Rome”, you can write a load of situations (e.g. gladiators before a fight, someone’s chariot wheel has fallen off, etc) and we can chuck in our characters, which we have developed previously having done similar exercises with them before.
Quickly come up with a list of situations. Try for at least 5. One sentence only.
- A person’s dog falls down a drain.
- A fried egg tastes unbelievably good.
- Someone has been shot.
- There is turbulence in an aeroplane.
- A piano has fallen out of the sky.
Now briefly stick your characters in all the situations. Even though you might be tempted to elaborate at this point, don’t. It’s all about mentally getting used to placing the archetypes in many situations, so let the ideas float around your head, but don’t try to put it all on paper.
|Situation||The Brain||The Brawn||The Lit Fuse|
|A fried egg tastes unbelievably good.||Eater of the ham and eggs. Can’t believe it.||Cafe owner. Confused. Doesn’t like eggs.||Man at the next table waiting impatiently for food.|
|A man’s wife’s dog has fallen down a drain.||Cornered passer-by. A dentist.||Street sweeper. Opened the drain for cleaning.||Owner of the dog. Increasingly madder as his wife approaches.|
|Someone has been shot.||Forensics geek. Incredibly interested by the wound.||Passing traffic cop who’s not sure if murder is in his job description.||The shot person. Pissed off because had a meeting to go to.|
|Turbulence on an aeroplane.||Businesswoman trying to get work done.||Enjoys the bouncing of the aeroplane like a rollercoaster.||Scared of flying and irritated by The Brawn.|
Fleshing out the characters
The next step is to flesh out your characters even more by describing their “Wants”, “Loves”, “Hates” and “Needs”. The more you practice Exercises 2-3 the better you will come to know your archetypes and will be able to apply them to any situation.
Take one or two of your situations from the previous exercise and write one or two things for each of the three characters under the following headings:
- (S)he wants….
- (S)he loves….
- (S)he hates….
- (S)he needs….
For example, we’ll use the situation “Turbulence on an aeroplane”
|Character:||The Brain||The Brawn||The Lit Fuse|
|(S)he wants….||Some peace to be able to work on her laptop.||The other people around him to be able to enjoy the turbulence like he does.||To get off the plane quick and never fly again.|
|(S)he loves….||Being right and being the one in charge.||The feeling of bouncing around of the plane.||The feeling of being on solid ground and not being 30,000ft in the air.|
|(S)he hates….||Having her elbow room taken up by someone else on a plane.||Pickles on sandwiches and lukewarm tea.||It when someone tells him to calm down and breathe.|
|(S)he needs….||To loosen up and learn to enjoy the moment, like The Brawn does.||To learn to pick up on social cues of the people around him.||A slap in the face.|
Writing the story
The above exercises don’t take long when you’ve got the hang of it. You can quickly explore the possibilities of many situations for your characters even when you’ve only got 10 minutes waiting for a bus. After doing this several times, you’re going to know your character archetypes pretty well. You’ll find that the final characters come out pretty differently each time, but you’ll be able to recognise the archetypes behind the characters even if nobody else will.
Now do whichever of the following you prefer:
- Get to know your archetypes better by doing more of Exercises 2-3.
- Take one set of developed characters from Exercise 3 and start writing it into a story.
- It can be a good idea to do some rough plotting to propel the story beyond your initial setup. Write a couple of sentences to describe the Start, End and Middle (in that order) of the story before you begin writing.