A friend recently e-mailed me a bucket list. Generally, as seen in the Morgan Freeman/Jack Nicholson movie by the same name, it’s an inventory of the things you’d like to do before you kick the bucket.
On the list I received, you could check off the things you’d actually done in your life, such as “visited Washington, DC,” “skipped school,” “ridden an elephant,” and “seen someone die” (yes, no, yes, yes). (Hmm. The first and last of these could be related.)
There was room for comments, too. So next to “Have you ever gone bungee jumping?” you could jot an editorial comment like “No way, José !” (mine) or “There’s this bridge above the railroad tracks a mile from my house, and me and some friends . . .” (a fictional teenage boy who did or didn’t jump).
You could probably add a few things to the list, though I didn’t. Maybe I’ll do it again and include “have you ever gone snowmobiling, performed in front of an audience, been on a horse when it got into a fight with another horse?” (Honest, the other horse started it.)
See how specific experiences and reactions can make a person unique and interesting, give us hints into character and background, and set up a person for the fictional conflicts he or she will face?
Example: When she was eighteen, Marie went on her first and only trail ride and was thrown in a horse fight. Is she the type of girl who gets right back on the horse, or is she so traumatized that she can’t even watch the races at the county fair from the grandstand ten years later? What’s she going to do when she finds out the man she’s falling in love with owns a riding stable and makes his living training horses and riders?
So who did I send my bucket list to after I filled it out? The members of Cochise Writers here in southeastern Arizona. Why? After all, most of them know that I’ve fired a gun and was an inveterate knuckle-dragger (snowboarder) in my forties and fifties.
I sent it to them because the bucket list is a fine tool for defining, refining, and generally getting ideas about your fictional characters. In fact, I’ve kept and added to a list of questions for years, based on writing articles, books, classes, and random ideas I’ve run across in the course of life.
So the question of the day is: What do you find interesting about real people and, by extension, fictional characters? From the answer to that question, you can formulate other inquiries that will help you free associate personal histories and personalities for the people who want to write about. You may be surprised what comes up, and those unexpected aspects will make your characters more interesting to your readers.
The usual character questions revolve around age, health, ethnicity, religious background, education, unconscious gestures, hobbies, political leanings, and reactions to conflict. The bucket list is different. It asks about people’s external lives–what they have or haven’t done–and their reactions to those things.
Here are the questions from the bucket list I received. A useful exercise might be to make up your own.
Have you (or your character) ever – shot a gun – gone on a blind date – skipped school – watched someone die – visited Canada – visited Hawaii – visited Cuba – visited Mexico – visited Europe – visited Asia – visited South America – visited Florida – visited Las Vegas – traveled to the opposite side of the country – visited Washington , DC – seen the Grand Canyon – flown in a plane – served on a jury – been lost – swam (waded) in the ocean – cried yourself to sleep – played cops and robbers – played cowboys and Indians – recently colored with crayons – sang Karaoke – sang a solo or duet in church – paid for a meal with coins only – made prank phone calls – laughed until some beverage came out of your nose – caught a snowflake on your tongue – had children – had a pet – been skinny-dipping outdoors – been fishing – been boating – been downhill skiing – been water skiing – gone camping in a trailer/RV – gone camping in a tent – flown in a small 4-seater airplane – flown in a glider – flown in a helicopter – flown in a hot air balloon – flown in a blimp – walked on a glacier – driven a motorcycle/been a passenger – been bungee-jumping – gone to a drive-in movie – done something that could have killed you (but not bungee jumping) – done something that you will regret for the rest of your life – visited Africa – rode an elephant – eaten just cookies or cake for dinner – been on TV – stolen any traffic signs – been in a car accident – gone curling?
Also: favorite drink – have piercings – tattoos – do you drive a 4-wheel-drive vehicle – favorite number – favorite movie – favorite dessert – where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
What stories could you write that revolve around your characters doing–or not doing–these things?