I agree with… Judi Dench

Judi Dench “It’s essential to have a back story. Essential. I had a whole family life for ‘M’ (in Bond): two grown-up girls at university, not that anybody knew about it, but I knew about it.”
[Judi Dench, in an excerpt from The Sunday Times Magazine, February 23, 2014]

Judi Dench

[photo: Sunday Times Magazine]

I do this too. Back in the days when Ignoring Gravity didn’t have a title, I wrote an Excel sheet with details about Rose’s back story: her birth sign [Virgo], what car she drives [a black Mini with a white roof], her most intense dislikes [people who don’t do what they promise to do; unwashed hair]. Her character traits: she avoids confrontations but will speak up if feels wronged; at work, she puts her head down and gets on with the job; a Guardian reader at work, but secretly reads chick-lit at home. To read more about Rose, click here.

Judi Dench’s quote made me remember an exercise I wrote as homework for one of the early creative writing classes I attended. It was about characterization: “create a character profile, a list of characteristics, then put that character into a situation and write 250 words about how your character would react.” This is what I wrote:-

The Profile: Jessica is quiet, studious, a new student, unsure, away from home for the first  time;
She is pretty but doesn’t realise it;
She wears slogan t-shirts which show her student approach to life – humorous, mildly anarchic;
Tall, she dips her head forwards;
She hates her thick bottom lip, thinks it looks fat;
Nervous, shy in groups; confident at home. At home, she lopes around with long legs. Out, she hunches her shoulders;
Quietly spoken, doesn’t rush in but waits to hear views of others before speaking herself. Makes up her mind slowly;
Works at Macdonalds to earn money for holiday;
Every now and then she loses her patience with slower people, but feels guilty afterwards.

The Exercise: Jessica’s best friend is pregnant and doesn’t know what to do. What advice would Jessica give her?
“I don’t believe Lianne could be so stupid. I didn’t even know she was sleeping with Kevin. What sort of name is Kevin anyway? The thought of them doing it makes me sick. Really it serves her right, she should have been more careful. You can’t rely on the boy, they just want one thing. It’s going to muck up her degree. I can’t believe she’s so stupid. I need to get her sorted out. She’s an emotional mess and is incapable of making a decision.”
Jessica sits Lianne down and talks to her calmly. Doesn’t talk about blame. She is not unsympathetic but tries to keep the conversation as practical as possible. Asks Lianne what she wants to do. Counsels time to think, but not too long – need to make a decision so agree a time. Reassures Lianne she will help. Asks if Kevin knows, how long has Lianne known. Jessica is practical: has Lianne done a test. Could it be a mistake? Jessica offers practical help, not so much emotional support. Doesn’t let Lianne know that she’s in unexplored territory, that she is still a virgin and Lianne has experienced something Jessica hasn’t.”

Neither Jessica, nor Lianne, has appeared in any of my fiction as themselves or under another name. But I have used this exercise time and again. Each character in Ignoring Gravity has his/her own Excel sheet.

What exercises do you write to get into the head of a character? Leave me a message below.

To read the full Sunday Times Magazine article, click here.

To watch a wonderful interview with Judi Dench on The Andrew Marr Show, click here. She explains how she fell into acting, originally she wanted to be a theatre designer.

If you agree with Judi Dench, perhaps you will agree with:-
Karen Maitland – do your research, then set it aside
Lynn Barber – don’t make up your mind too early what it’s about
SJ Watson – write every day, even if it’s rubbish

Judi Dench


‘Behind the Scenes’ by Judi Dench [UK: W&N]

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