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Portrait of a Character

Find your next protagonist in an art gallery.

You need to be fascinated by people to write about them. You need to wonder about someone’s life choices, their jobs, partners and secrets. What were they like as a child? What happened to them to make them so disappointed or contrary? What made them settle for that man/job/way of life? How did they turn out to be so compassionate or volatile?

You can ask yourself these questions as you sit on the tube or bus and look at the other passengers. Or as you ride an elevator or sit in a doctor’s waiting room. You can pluck the answers from the air or cobble them together from a terse snippet of conversation, from a book being read, the way that someone stares sadly out of a window or beams as they scroll on their phone. What is it that makes someone smile like that? Why is the man with the loud shirt refusing to make eye contact with the woman with the Chihuahua? If she never turns a page, why is the angry-looking girl holding a book?

You can create relationships between people who happen to be sitting next to each other and reasons why they’re not talking. Was it a first date that went wrong? A disastrous attempt to rekindle a flame? Are they furious siblings back from a will reading or old friends who are comfortable with silence?

I do this all the time. Fabricating back stories from a scuffed shoe or red eyes, pairing up people based on book choices or an inability to sit still, on the way they sigh or take a selfie. If you don’t, you should try it. Observing strangers like this provides you with an endless roll call of possible characters.

One of the best places for a bit of character generation is an art gallery, particularly one with portraits. There are so many potential stories on every canvas. Sometimes, I like to stand in front of neighbouring paintings and create a relationship between the two sitters. What do they say to each other when the visitors are all gone? Would they prefer a room with a view? A less serious neighbour? Or I ask myself what someone thought about whilst they were being painted and whether they liked the artist. When the portrait was finished, did they admire it? Did they resent their likeness hanging on a stranger’s wall?

Stand in front of any portrait and, with the tiniest bit of curiosity, you’ll find that characters leap from a canvas and scurry towards a page. Next time you visit a gallery, take pictures of the most interesting faces – not the most beautiful – and keep them in a file on your phone. Work those creative muscles and come up with a character biography for each portrait you take.










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