Writing exercise: getting to know a new character

When I’m trying to get to know a new character, nothing works better for me than a writing exercise. If I’ve already got some plot ideas I will put them into a scene which may come in useful later, otherwise I think of my character exercises as investment pieces. If I don’t know where to start, I choose a day-to-day situation and begin there. Often I will give myself 20 minutes, sitting in a busy coffee shop and write longhand in my Muji notebook. The routine seems to help. washing up1 (2)Here are two I wrote earlier. I’m not sure what the future holds for Malcolm and Doreen. washing up3 (2)Doreen looped the pinny over her head and tied the strings at her back in a floppy bow, the edges of the apron stretched across her ample bosom. She glanced at her watch as she took it off and put it in a dry spot on the windowsill. 4.36pm. She only had 54 minutes before Malcolm would be home, 54 minutes to tidy up and cook his tea. She turned on the hot tap and tested the water with her fingers before squeezing in a 1p-sized blob of Fairy into the washing up bowl. Doreen liked starting with dirty plates and finishing with dishes so shiny she could see her face in them. She wouldn’t give house room to a dishwasher, though Malcolm had offered to buy her one. Perhaps she should cook his favourite for tea, she thought as she swished. Egg and chips. No, he’d had a fried egg for breakfast yesterday and the day before that, and too many eggs were bad for his cholesterol. But he deserved a treat. She surveyed the pile of gleaming dishes stacked in a tower on the drainer and smiled, then emptied the bowl and watched the water flow away. Then just as she rinsed the last suds from the basin and gave the sink a wipe so it sparkled, the phone rang. 4.57. It would be him. She wiped her hands on her pinny and patted her shampoo-and-set curls. “Malcolm? Are you on your way?” washing up2 (2)“Me, do the washing up? You’ve got to be joking, that’s what dishwashers are for.”

Malcolm stacked the dirty dishes beside the sink and turned to make a quick exit from the kitchen. But his route was blocked. His wife stood in the doorway, her arms folded and feet spread. “I’ve done my bit,” he said. “Look, I’ve cleared up. I can’t wash, I’ll break something.” He shrugged his shoulders then ran his fingers through his greying shoulder-length hair. “Your dishes will stay in one piece if I don’t wash them.” He gazed at Doreen through his eyelashes. Had she bought it? No. Right, he’d show her. He took the bottle of washing up liquid which she held out to him and gave it a good squeeze. Perhaps if he made a bad job of it this time she’d never ask him again. So he ignored the burnt-on bits of oven chip on the baking tray and failed to wipe the smears underneath plates, he skipped the brown ring of scum inside the tea mugs and the gobs of egg yolk caught between the tines of forks. He emptied the bowl in one extravagant gesture then waved the dishcloth above the bubbles and water which had flooded in a sudsy wave across the work surface. There, that should do it.
© Sandra Danby

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  1. Normal characters doing normal things in stories usually disinterests me. However, the way you wrote these two pieces on dishwashing was so character-centric and unique to each I was left wishing for more little tidbits on both. I think perhaps because you made each more about the characters than the mundane job they faced.

    • Thanks, it makes me want to try to do more with the characters. Normally I start my stories with a plot idea, rather than a character idea, so this is a new direction for me.