What’s in your bag?


The most interesting characters come alive in the smallest details: a favourite food, a favourite type of music, a fear of spiders, an allergy to plums, a scar from a fall at two years of age, a love of reality television. These details are what makes a character three dimensional and human.

They may seem mundane, but think about what defines you as a person. Is it the grand events in your life, or the day to day? These details of the small add a layered richness beyond the world of the story. The more you know about your characters, the deeper the well you have to draw from, the more specifically you can write for them.

This character development exercise will allow you to create the details of the small for your characters.

What’s In Your Bag?

Empty out the bag you use most regularly, whatever you take with you when you go out. If you don’t carry a bag, think about how you carry what’s necessary to get through the day – what’s in your pockets?

Look at the bag itself. Why did you choose it? How long have you had it? Do you need a new one?

Write out in a point form list each item in that bag. And then answer the following questions:

  • Why do you carry each item?
  • What purpose does it hold in your life?
  • Is there anything emotional in your bag?
  • Is everything in your bag strictly functional?
  • Is there anything in your bag that shouldn’t be?

Once you’ve answered all the questions, look back at what you’ve written. What does your bag say about you? What is expected about your answers? Was there anything unexpected?

Now, apply these steps to the main character in whatever project you are working on. Give this character a bag.

  • What does the bag look like?
  • Why does the character carry this bag?
  • If the character wouldn’t carry a bag, create the reason why.
  • How do they carry what’s necessary for their day?
  • Is this character the type of person who can’t leave the house without a huge bag?
  • Is there a job related to the bag?
  •  What does this bag tell you about this character?

Once you’ve established the bag itself, make a point for list of the items in the bag. And then answer the following:

  • What do the items in the bag help the character to do? 
  • Based on what you know of the character, what items in the bag are expected?
  • Put one thing in the bag which is unexpected.
  • What does that unexpected item say about the character?

If you want to go further, write a scene involving this character and their bag.

Exploring the world of the small in your characters is always going to give you a wealth of material to work with.

A picture tells a thousand words


I came across some pretty haunting pictures that are ideal for a writing prompt.

Click here to see the faces of soldiers before, during and after war. The pictures are over at upworthy.com. I keep going back to the look in their eyes in the after pictures. What have those eyes seen? How have they changed? Each face tells a story. It’s one I probably could never imagine in my nightmares. But this is what writers do, isn’t it. Imagine what we have not lived.


Look through the sets of pictures and pick one man. Decide on who this soldier is, write a brief character profile for them. What’s their name? How old are they? What’s their background? Where do they come from? How long have they been a soldier? Where are they coming back from? Are they married? What does their family think of war?

Write a monologue of your character as they are before war, during war, and after. It could be an inner monologue or a direct address. Decide who they are talking to in the monologue and what is it they want to say. What is the inciting incident for the monologue? What’s the reason they open their mouth and talk? What’s something they could say in a monologue that they could never repeat out loud? In that after monologue what has caused that look in their eye?

In a month where we are supposed to remember and more often than not I’m too busy, these pictures say a lot.

Observation Thursday

Every Thursday I post something I’ve observed. I don’t know when or where I’ll use it but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the consistent habit of making an observation and writing it down. When you start to do that, everything becomes an idea for the future.


Out of Place, out of time

When: August 17th. A Sunday afternoon.

Observation:  We have a very small horse track not so far from us. It’s actually a quiet way to spend the afternoon as it’s never busy and there’s lots of time between races. If you only bet the minimum it’s a great outing.

Last time we were there, we spotted a family. Four kids and the parents. Every girl in the family was wearing a dress or a long skirt. Every girl had hair to their waist in a braid. The father and boys were dressed in pants and long sleeved shirts. Not jeans. It wasn’t Amish or Mennonite but it was clearly a religious choice of some kind. And they were at the track.

What you can do with it:  Get writing.

  • Write a scene where a couple discusses what they’re seeing. What’s they’re response?
  • Write a scene where the husband in the family wants to be there and the wife does not.
  • Write a scene where the wife in the family wants to be at the track and the husband does not.
  • Write a scene where the only reason they’re there is to watch horses and don’t realize gambling takes place.
  • Write a scene between a kid in the family and another kid. The kid is overly curious as to why the other kid is dressed that way.

Observation Thursday

Every Thursday I post something I’ve observed. I don’t know when or where I’ll use it but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the consistent habit of making an observation and writing it down. When you start to do that, everything becomes an idea for the future.

Observation Thursday


The Cows are found. The Beagle is lost.

When: August 3rd in the car.

Observation: I was listening to This American Life  on a drive (thankfully I was not at the wheel so I could jot this down right away) and the show had a corespondent talking about Swap and Shop. It’s a radio show commonly found in rural areas where people call in with things they have for sale, things they’re looking for, and things they want to swap. And one person calling into the show said the words: “The four cows have been found. That beagle we found, we lost her again.”

What you can do with it: Well come on. 4 cows found. 1 beagle lost. Where were the cows found? Who lost the cows? Who lost the beagle? How did the beagle get found and then lost? Who is the person calling into the show? What if sentence is actually code for something else entirely. I like that the best – write a scene where the words “The four cows have been found. That beagle we found, we lost her again” is actually code for something else. What does it actually mean? Who is listening for that code and what is their response?

Going in the File


Do you have a file? You know the one. It’s on the corner of your desk. Maybe you use Evernote. Maybe it’s something on your phone – I just started using Google Keep and that is working nicely.

It’s the place you keep the “oooooh” and the “hmmmm” and the “maybe later.” Something comes across your world view and you know in an instant – that’s going in a play. I don’t know when or where or how or why. But someday it’s going to be used and you don’t want to lose it.

This is my most recent “oooooh”

It’s a Consumerist post about 15 product trademarks that have become victims (okay) of Genericization.  I had to get my dictionary out for that word and then realized – Generic!. These are products that either never applied for trademark, abandoned their trademark or had their trademarks canceled in court.

And while this list of 15 is interesting – did you know that cellophane used to be a product and not just a type of plastic wrap? Or how about Thermos or escalator? – it’s the products that aren’t yet out of trademark that are even more interesting. Mostly because it includes products you sure were already “victims” of genericization:

  • bandaid
  • bubble wrap
  • Crock-pot
  • onesies
  • popsicle
  • Putt Putt Golf

The list goes on. It’s things like this that make me go hmmmmmm. What if I had a character who was obsessed with trademarks? Or wanted to make their own crock-pot and got sued for some reason? Or disagreed with another character whether or not you could use bubble wrap in a story?  Or… something. I don’t have an idea yet and I don’t have a character in mind. But I certainly don’t want to lose a detail like this. This is the kind of story or fact or, well, detail that makes a character unique, specific and gives them drive.

And isn’t that what we all want for our characters? To have them be like no one else? 




Observation Thursday

Observation is my number one method of finding play ideas. If you’re ever at a loss for coming up with something to write about, start logging observations. I write down observations on a daily basis and on Thursdays, I’m going to share one with you what I’ve seen and then you could do with it.

Observation Thursday



Observation: Two elderly women alternately talking about their fear of snakes and another woman they don’t like who was getting married.

Date: Monday June 30 2014

Comments: Sitting in the doctors office, I pulled out my phone to document the conversation between two elderly woman. “Some snakes are legal, did you know that? Legal./ I’d be afraid it would get out of the aquarium. I’d have to kill it/She bought two mice. The receipt was in my car/I won’t go in the house. She makes me sick./She had two mice in my car./When’s the wedding? ” They went back and forth between talking about snakes and talking about the wedding of “She.”

What can you do:  This is one of those truth is stranger than fiction moments. You can’t get better than this – a hatred of snakes, a hatred of some unknown woman. To go deeper think about who this “She” is, what’s the relationship between the two elderly woman and “She” and why they really hate her. What’s going on here beyond the snakes? Is one of the women the mother of the guy “she” is marrying? What are they worried about?

Observation Thursday

Observation is my number one method of finding play ideas. If you’re ever at a loss for coming up with something to write about, start logging observations. I write down observations on a daily basis and on Thursdays, I’m going to share one with you what I’ve seen and then you could do with it. Observation Thursday

An inappropriate Selfie

Observation: Two people dressed in funeral blacks taking an odd selfie outside a funeral reception.

Date: Saturday June 14 2014

Comments: I was driving down a residential street. I stopped at a stop sign and saw a house with many many cars outside. I saw people get out of a car dressed in black, and a few more outside the house dressed in black. My keen powers of deduction decided that this was a house reception after a funeral. I saw two young people standing on the lawn. Both in black. He had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. She was pouting and toasting with a wine glass. They were taking a selfie of themselves. At a funeral reception.

What can you do:  Create the scenario.Who are these two people and what is their relationship to the dead person? Are they sad? If they’re not, why? Who has died? Why do they feel it’s okay to take a selfie in these circumstances. Write a scene between these two characters. Write another scene where a third person comes up to them and sees what they’re doing. What would their reaction be?

Two Steps to Creating Specific Characters

I’ve always been a character writer. I love character development, my favourite theatrical experiences center on interesting, well-developed characters.

What is your favourite part of a play?

One of the reasons writer falters, certainly in a play, is because of one-dimensional characters. Characters with no life outside the play. Characters who are there only to serve the plot. Characters who only exist in an occupation – teacher….doctor…mom… (unless of course this is a specific theme driven choice. I have a play where the characters are numbered One to Fifteen) The more alive a character is on the page, the more they’ll come alive off the page.

How do you create specific characters?

Take these two steps and you’ll be well on your way to creating specific characters.

Give them a name. This is the easiest place to start. Even if that name never makes it into the script, the easiest way to visualize a character is to name them. A name is the gateway to so much information. I have a play called Sweep Under Rug in which there are two sisters named Miranda and Ariel. The names come from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The mother in the play is never seen, but is described as a drug addict and all around “bad person.”  

I wanted to provide a detail that showed a different side to the mother, since she can’t speak for herself. That side is a love of Shakespeare.  Yes you have to know Shakespeare to get the reference, but if you’re a director studying the play it doesn’t take too much research to find out where these two names come from.

Secondly, Miranda and Ariel are very pretty names. It’s even hard to say the names in a harsh manner. The world the characters live in is decidedly ugly. I purposefully chose pretty names for these characters to contrast their surroundings.

How do you choose names for your characters?

Character Specific Language. When you’re writing for specific characters you want to give them their own language. What words do they use? How do they sound? Do they use a lot of noises – umms, coughs, hums? How do they sound when they get emotional? How do they breathe? How do they respond to pop culture? Would your character swear or say “oh my gosh?”

Establishing a character language is extremely helpful to crafting character driven dialogue. In Sweep Under Rug the older sister Miranda is extremely depressed. She’s sad to the point that she can’t express herself fully. She doesn’t know what to say or how to say it.  To that end, she  is losing her language. She speaks in fragments. She doesn’t use complete sentences.

MIRANDA: Walls crumbling away. Crumbling.

She’s also a poet. In a couple of moments where she’s able to communicate, she shares her view of her world in a poetic form – it’s something specific and different from her world, it defines who she is as a character.

MIRANDA:  Getting worse out there. Anger under lock and key. One with Knife. One with Nail. Yesterday one just takes your stuff. Today you‘re dead. Today there is a never ending rain, never ending in your bones. Flood up to the ears, up to nose, up to eyes. It‘s the knowing we will drown. That‘s the worst part.  

If you just take these two steps with your characters you’ll elevate them off the page. You’ll make your characters come to life. And that’s going to make an audience remember your work.