James Whitman

Author, playwright and creative writing tutor, based in Sunderland.

Writing Workshops

Disrupting Your Muse: Crossing the Streams (Part 1 of 2)

This term at Hendon Writers, we’re shaking up what and how we write. These workshops are ideal for writers stuck in a rut, writing stories about the same old themes, with the same old characters doing the same old stuff.

Today’s exercises draw inspiration from the BP Portrait Award exhibition (currently at Sunderland Museum), but you can easily adapt them to any images of people.

Exercise #1: Describe a portrait

First, we’re going to get acquainted with a portrait. You can do this in a gallery, on a photo-sharing site (like Flickr), or anywhere people post selfies.

  1. Take a few moments to find an image that catches your eye, or that evokes an emotional response. Don’t feel like you have to rush this or that you should settle for the first image you find. Oh, and try to avoid images of celebrities and people you know. Your pre-existing opinion of the subject will colour what you see in their portrait.
  2. Next, take a good long look at the picture you’ve selected. Then, start describing what you see. You’re looking for surface level stuff, like distinguishing features and how the subject is dressed, but also things like facial expression and body language. Give yourself a good 15 minutes, and get as granular as you can. When I do this, I like to mind map each detail. I might note ‘eyes’, then around that note I’ll write several details about the eyes. The more you put on your page here, the more you’ll have to work with later, so keep going ’til your page is full.

Your brain will likely do some unhelpful things as you make your notes. It will look for patterns. It will interpret details, and trick you into thinking your interpretation is a description. Do not listen to your tricksy brain! If you catch yourself writing stuff like ‘he had sad eyes’, ask yourself what it is about this dude’s eyes that makes you think they’re sad. Is there darkness where there should be a twinkle? Is your man gazing into the distance, his lips pinched and thin?

Exercise #2: What lies beneath?

Okay, so you’ve got a mind-map, or some notes, or a bunch of interesting looking hieroglyphics. Now, we’re going to get creative.

  1. On a separate page, start interpreting what you observed in Exercise #1. For each of the details you noted, think about what might make the subject pull that face, or sit in that way. Why is that guy scowling, arms folded? Why is that girl sitting against the wall like that? Again, I like to mind map this bit. So, I might note ‘smile’, and then some ideas about that smile. At this point, don’t settle for the first thought that occurs to you. Go wide. Like, that guy might look sad because he knows his long distance relationship isn’t going to work, or because nobody reads his blog, or because he accidentally ate chips fried in beef dripping and now he’s going to lose his vegan powers. And keep asking why. If the guy is sad about his blog, what is his blog about? Why does it matter to him if people read it?

As you fill up your page, your ideas will start to click together. This will likely happen before you’re consciously aware of it. You’ll just start interpreting things in a way that is consistent with what you’ve already written.

When this happens, you might want to start pruning, and that’s fine. Just don’t make your character too one-note. People are complicated, motivated in different directions by competing priorities. For instance, being a good dad is important to me for lots of reasons, but there are times I’ll screw it up for lots of other reasons. And, you know, what? There are times I’d rather be doing something else, for lots of other reasons.

Building conflict into your characters is where you’ll find their best stories, so just be careful you don’t make them too consistent.

What’s next?

Okay, you’ve got a character. Now what are you going to do with them? You’re going to take them out for a coffee, of course.

If you want to keep ‘disrupting your muse’, go random. I like to use the soheresone card game. This is a deck of interesting questions, which I answer from my character’s perspective. You might also try flicking through a newspaper, imagining your character’s response to that day’s stories.

Top tip: If you write in third person, it will be easier to use all those delicious details you noted down during Exercise #1.

Next week, we’ll be exploring landscapes, inspired by Fiona Crisp’s exhibition — Material Sight — at the NGCA. Describing locations can be tricky stuff, so if that’s something you struggle with (like me), have a good go at this week’s exercises first.

Until next time… toodle-oo!


  1. Steph

    Right, I’ve got my character and we’re meeting for coffee tomorrow, and now I’m nervous about how to get the conversation going. I don’t want to sound like I’m prying into their personal life but also don’t want to go down the v obvious ‘where are you going on your holidays’ route. Any suggestions?

    • I’m really the worst person to ask what to talk about on a first date, as I tend to waffle on about myself.

      When I’ve run this session in a group, I use a deck of cards with interesting questions and conversation starters. The main thing is to avoid the obvious, day-to-day stuff, and look for their extremes instead. What do they love? What do they hate?

      As a game, you might try the following: Flip a coin. Heads, the character shares something broadly positive; tails, they share something negative. For instance, heads, they share something they’ve done that they’re proud of; tails, they share something embarrassing. Or heads, they share something they think should be mandatory by law; tails, something they’d make illegal. Heads, a day they’d time travel to so they could live it again; tails, a day they’d time travel to so they could fix whatever went wrong.

      And once you’ve got them talking, keep asking ‘why’? Why would you make this illegal, or time travel to that day? What values and beliefs does your character show you in their answers? Once you know this stuff, you can make a better guess at the stories that will challenge your character and their view of the world.

      Hope that helps.

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