by Lisa Bullard
One of the basic writing exercises I use with kids starts with having them create personal “Time Capsules” (download the activity). It’s a great way to explore how writers build a character through the use of “telling” details—in this case, the items a character values the most.
But a person’s stuff can reveal more about them than just the obvious. For example, I have identical twin nephews. From the time they were two, one of them (Alex), insisted on spiking up with hair gel like a porcupine or a James Dean-wannabe. When he came to visit me, he’d carry along an entire 128 oz. bottle for an overnight stay (I guess you never know when you might have a hair gel emergency).
For years we weren’t sure what the gel represented. Was his chosen hairstyle a “coolness” thing? A matter of vanity? And then Alex finally answered the question we’d been asking for so long.
“This way nobody confuses me for Matt [his identical twin],” he said. “I really want people to know it’s me under here.” Hair gel represented his deeply felt need to have others recognize him as a distinct individual.
Understanding that, a writer could build an authentic, believable character—using nothing more than the 128 oz. of hair gel the character packs in his suitcase.