When you think of a self-portrait, do you think of Vincent Van Gogh? Frida Kahlo? The sexy selfie you took this morning?
It’s likely that what comes to mind for you is the same as what comes for me: visual art. You can’t write a self-portait…or can you?
Interestingly, The Cambridge English Dictionary defines a self-portrait as “a picture, photograph, or piece of writing that you make of or about yourself.” It includes literary art in the definition. I mean, if we wanted to get deep, we could suggest that all art is a kind of self-portrait. But we’re not here to get deep; we’re going to hang out in the kiddie pool and create some bad ass characters that you can use in your writing.
Despite what you may have been told before, compelling characters can be cliches–the strong silent one, the funny sidekick, the self conscious but actually super hot babe etc. But if that’s all they are, they will never come to life. What brings a character to life is the little quirks that all of us have. Irrational fears, weird hobbies, strange mannerisms or ticks, bad habits etc. These things make us human, and thus to make a character human, they must have them too.
This activity encourages you to get inspiration for these quirks from a real person–you!
- Choose the role your character would fill in a novel or short story. Your character’s traits will vary depending on the role of the character (protagonist, antagonist, supporting character etc.). You don’t have to have a story or a plot to do this; just choose a role and feel free to get as general or specific as you want. Is your character the comedy relief? The anti-hero? Someone the main character will witness being hit by a flying deer? Yes, that actually happened:
- Choose the genre you want to write in. Like visual art varies in style, the character you create will vary depending on the genre and the context they exist in. Luke Skywalker doesn’t belong in Narnia, you know?
- Create a self-portrait aka a description of yourself including the personality traits that would be important if you existed in the role and genre you chose above. Do this by plugging elements of your own personality (things that you like, your experiences, quirks–the little things that make you yourself) into the categories you chose above. For example, a supporting character in high fantasy genre, likely wouldn’t be addicted to Candy Crush.
- Remove yourself from the self-portrait and turn it into a character profile. This step is all your own discretion; you could keep the character description 100% the same as your self-portrait and just change the name so it’s not yours, or you could keep only the best parts and erase yourself from the narrative.
- Role: protagonist
- Genre: Romantic Comedy
- Self-portrait: Kat is one of those people who always has at least one or two people who are in love with her, yet she is always single. She identifies very strongly with Katherina from The Taming of the Shrew. So much so in fact, that she changed her name from Katie to Kat after discovering 10 Things I Hate About You (a modern adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew) in high school. She actively pushes the buttons of the men she dates just to see how much they will let her get away with. If they push back, she gets upset; if they don’t, she gets bored. It’s a double edged sword. She is prone to falling down stairs in front of guys she likes. Alcohol is often a factor in this, but not always. She’s currently hooked on a guy she went on a few dates with months ago, not because he was special, but because he wasn’t interested in her. She was told by a guy on a recent date that when she makes eye contact, it’s so intense that it makes people uncomfortable. At first she was self conscious about this, but she’s since owned it.
- Character Profile: Katarina is one of those people who always has at least one or two people who are in love with her, yet she is always single. She identifies very strongly with Kat in 10 Things I Hate About You. So much so in fact that she demanded that her friends and family start calling her Katarina despite her legal name being Katherina. She doesn’t read, let alone Shakespeare, so she’s unaware that the movie she loves is a Shakespearean adaptation or that her legal name is the same as the title character from the play; however, the plot of her story will parallel that of The Taming of the Shrew (her not knowing this will be dramatic irony). She actively pushes the buttons of the men she dates just to see how much they will let her get away with. If they push back, she gets upset; if they don’t, she gets bored. It’s a double edged sword. She is prone to falling down stairs in front of guys she likes. Alcohol is often a factor in this, but not always. She’s currently hooked on a guy she went on a few dates with months ago not because he was anything kind of special, but because he wasn’t interested. She was told by a guy on a recent date that when she makes eye contact, it’s so intense that it makes people uncomfortable. At first she was self conscious about this, but she’s since owned it.
Boom. We have a living breathing character, and not only that, but elements of plot have started to appear just from doing this activity.
Notice how the self-portrait/character description revolved around romantic details? This is because these are the details that would be important in a romantic comedy genre. If the genre was high fantasy, the details brought to light may be about physical ability or gravitas depending on the chosen role. A knave character description would vary greatly from a high priestess. Or maybe it wouldn’t. You decide.
I chose to write my self-portrait in third person because there’s an element of removal that makes it easier to write about myself. It’s all true information, yet a lot of it is nothing new as far as the romantic comedy genre goes. I even referenced two texts that have similar shrew archetypes.
Where the character comes to life in the character description is in the small details I used, like Katherina changing her name to that of Katerina, a character from a movie based on a play she was already named after; this says a lot about her personality (stubbornness, reliance on pop culture for identity, ignorance etc.) and her perspective of herself as a shrew. Even from that I can see a possible plot point where it’s revealed to her that her legal name is from the play her favourite movie is based on.
In addition, being embarrassed about her intense eye contact shows that she is capable of humility and self doubt, and it also gives the writer a way to describe how she will interact with other characters when writing an actual story. Physical quirks like these really bring a character to life. For example, in the story “Treasures” that I got published by the Write Room, I describe my protagonist as essentially having ADHD which influences his mannerisms:
Energy hums in my ears, my kind of energy, the kind I’ve had since I was a little boy. It’s wild, ceaselessly vibrating and barely contained. It’s the kind of energy that made the other kids hate me during exams in school, unable to keep still or stop my pencil from rapping against my desk as my mind drifted to the rumbling trucks outside and airplanes soaring overhead in the clear sky.
My character’s inability to keep himself still is one of the elements that brings him to life. In fact, this trait was based on real life too; it’s a description of my brother, the king of ADHD. When he would come over to visit, his constant pacing and foot tapping would stress my dog out so much that he would go hide in the garage.
Of course this activity is just a starting point, but look at how much information came from one little writing activity. Coming from one little paragraph of description is a compelling human character and the idea for a plot of a whole story or novel where the romantic comedy parallels The Taming of the Shrew. If I haven’t sold you on it by this point, then you can go hang out in Narnia with Luke Skywalker!