Characters are funny people for authors. We spend so much time with them, they often become real to us. However, the process of creating them, of determining their likes, dislikes, quirks and idiosyncrasies, can sometimes be painful. It’s hard to create a well-rounded person from scratch. A creativity exercise can often help. I’ve written before about how it helps me to let my characters go free range once in a while. Here’s another idea: Take your characters shopping.
(Note that I’m not suggesting that you actually spend money and buy things for your characters. You should never buy things for imaginary people. This is an exercise that doesn’t need to cost anything. You can do it without completing the transaction.)
Now before you write me off as bonkers, hear me out. Shopping and the rituals associated with the pastime can tell you a lot about a person. That’s true for real and imagined people. It’s also true for characters in any time period. If you think it won’t work because your character is from the distant past or far future, it will. You just may have to apply a little more imagination to the process, but you can still do the exercise. For example, a caveman might not have been able to buy a 70-inch flat screen TV, but if you think he might have wanted one, figure out a luxury item item he could get (or create) and use that in your work.
So how do you go shopping with your characters? Here’s how I do it. (Note that sometimes I actually go to the stores and browse around, keeping my characters in the back of my mind and taking notes on what I find. Other times, I simply do this as a mental exercise at my computer.) Mostly, I ask a lot of questions and then answer them for each character.
Where do they shop? Do you have a character who prefers upmarket stores, or funky thrift shops? Yard sales? Do they shop at the hip grocery store, or the warehouse club? Or both? Where a person prefers to shop can often tell you something about their personality quirks. Serious introverts may prefer to shop online only, for example. A person who is social and likes to know what’s going on may choose to shop at the bustling local market staffed by townspeople he knows. Do they have a preference but can’t honor it due to other circumstances? For example, would your character prefer to shop at a local market but cant because he lives in suburban-big-box-store-land? How do these things make your character feel and act?
Do they like to spend money, or are they frugal? Some people/characters will walk into a store and buy everything they like, regardless of budget. Others are more careful and prefer not to spend money they don’t have to. Such behavior can inform a character beyond their balance sheet, so don’t worry if you aren’t planning to bring finances directly into your work. Perhaps your frugal character is that way because of how/where she was raised. Or because she has no choice because she’s poor. Maybe she’s a spender because she’s trying to fill some other void in her life, or she wants to increase her appeal to another person/group.
When do they shop? Have you got a night owl on your hands, or an early bird? Does your character love shopping events like Black Friday, or big home or boat shows, or does he avoid them like the plague? Is your character the weirdo who haunts the 24-hour stores at 2AM because it’s not crowded? Or does he like to go at odd hours because the people are more interesting then? Or he’s avoiding/hiding from something? Does your character shop only when he needs something, or is it a hobby/sport for him? All of this speaks to how your character uses time in general and why.
How do they shop? Some people buy everything without much consideration and take it home to try it on/decide if they like it. Then they return everything they don’t want. Others won’t buy anything they haven’t first thoroughly researched and tried on. The former people might be more free-flowing in other aspects of their lives, while the latter might be more tightly wound. Or, quirk alert: How they shop might be completely opposite to how they live. Why might that be the case?
What do they buy? This is the fun part. Would your character like that sweater with a dog’s face on it, or not? Would they buy the name brand tuna, or the store brand? Is your character a Nike person, or an Addidas person (and is that a commentary on anything)? What types of food would they buy? Clothes? Hobby materials? Furnishings? Car? (Or would they rather have a bike?) Do they drool over the travel posters in the shop window, or pass right by? You can walk into any store or visit any website and find items your characters would love or hate. Use these items in their houses, offices, or general surroundings. Dress them in the items (or variants you create) they like. Or dress them in the items they hate but explain why.
What a person buys often says a lot about the other aspects of their personality. That’s true not only for what they buy, but for what they don’t buy, as well. (And why.) We tend to surround ourselves with things and experiences that speak to who we are as people.
How do they pay? Is your character a cash-only person, or a charge card junkie? Are they hip enough to use all of the e-pay options? Do they barter for some things? Are they a haggler? Do they pay in a future currency you’ve imagined? Do they shoplift and avoid paying altogether? How a person uses money often speaks to their personality and circumstances.
What do they do with the stuff they buy? Do they put it to use/put it away immediately, or stash bags in the closet to deal with later? Do they use the “good stuff” on a regular basis, or save it for special occasions? Are they hiding purchases from other family members? Do they give a lot of their purchases away? Is your character a minimalist with a “one in, one out” policy, or are they a hoarder? Somewhere in between? It’s not only what we buy that speaks to our personalities, it’s how we use the stuff we buy, as well.
Is shopping a social experience? Some people perfer to shop alone. Others make it into a social event. Some must have someone along to validate their purchases because they just can’t do anything without input from another. Some people chat up the store’s staff, others brush them off with a terse, “Just looking.” There are people who will actively seek out help in a store, and others who will look lost until someone asks if they need help. What kind of character do you have? A social butterfly, or someone who hates (or fears) other people?
Taking your character shopping and seeing what, when, and how they buy is both fun and informative. It’s a great creativity exercise when your characters just aren’t quite coming together. Shopping is something that’s almost universal and which speaks to how all of us deal with money, time, other people, and stuff in general. The key is to ask, “Why?” whenever your character expresses a preference for any sort of retail experience. Knowing the why will likely tell you something deeper about their personality that you can use in your work.
(Image by Alexas_Fotos)