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Get into character

How creating a character or a 'pen portrait' can help you see things through another person's eyes.

When you want to see things differently, why not try becoming someone else?

You often hear actors talk about 'getting into character'. It means they're getting into the mind of the person they are about to play. They are getting under the character's skin and discovering their temperament, personality and how they talk, walk and behave.

But more than that, they're thinking about the lived experience of said character. That's because just like us, a character is more than just their behaviour - it also encompasses what their life and experiences have been up to that point. Because that's what makes all of us who we are.

Fiction writers and screenwriters often write full biographies for their characters. They create backstories that give the character extra depth. Everything from their favourite song, colour and food, to what their childhood was like. Where they grew up. How many siblings they have. Whether or not they still talk to their parents. When they first fell in love. Their biggest regret. The list goes on.

But how can all this help you be more creative?

Sometimes it's difficult to see things from a different perspective when all you know is your own experience. But by creating a fictional character - with their associated likes, dislikes and differing point of view - it can often help you look at things from a new angle.

In marketing, this is commonly done through the creation of 'Pen Portraits'. These are a way to group customers that think and behave in certain ways. It helps marketing people tailor their communications to different groups. So they can sell them more stuff they never knew they needed.

These groups often have names like Affluent Metropolitans or Curious Empty Nesters. But where it gets interesting is when Pen Portraits are turned into people - real characters, with actual names.

Here's an example of what I mean:

Jason is 26. He lives with his boyfriend Adam and their dog Beano. He works in IT and his boyfriend runs his own graphic design business from home. They currently rent and are saving for a deposit on a flat. They both enjoy rock music and Jason plays drums in a band. They go on a foreign holiday twice a year, and have the odd weekend away to see family and friends around the UK, but prefer to stay in AirBnBs than hotels. Jason works out at the gym every day and enjoys cooking.

Okay, Jason isn't going to pop up in a Booker-winning novel any time soon, but you can see how the process can give a brand a lot of information about their target audience's behaviours and spending habits. While you were reading that mini-biography you might have created a picture of Jason, Adam (and Beano) in your head. You keep going of course, adding much more detail about Jason's beliefs, politics, likes, dislikes etc. It all contributes to how you can picture the way Jason would feel about certain things.

When you feel you've finally done enough, you can then think about your creative problem through questioning:

What would Jason do in [this] situation?

How would he feel if it was presented to him?

Would he understand it?

Would he even care?

Creating characters or pen portraits is a great way to test your ideas with different groups of people, without the inconvenience of gathering together actual people. It's like creating a focus group from a bunch of imaginary friends. The important thing though is not to let your own biases sway the views or thoughts of the characters. Let them evolve and take on a form all their own.

If it helps, you can 'cast' the characters using pictures of faces, famous or otherwise. Google Images gives you an almost unlimited amount. It can really bring your characters to life and give voice to them.

To write character biographies, or delve into other character development tools, here are some great resources from the excellent screenwriting blog Go Into the Story:

And for more on Pen Portraits, check this out:

Always remember though - stop talking to your characters whenever you leave the house. They're not real, and you'll get some funny looks.


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