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Scrap box inspiration for characters

March 24, 2010

or Tips on Building your Characters from Scrap Material

Writers deal in the currency of words. However, all too often naming a new character and attempting to create a complete person with quirks and frailties out of thin air ensures a creative blockage descends upon ones fingers and mind; disallowing the progress; resulting in lifeless husks or worse stereotypical mockeries of humanity wandering the text.

If you’ve tried other character building activities and nothing has sparked or worked for you; perhaps its time to engage other senses to gain inspiration.

Although this initially takes a little time to set up, once completed, you are able to draw upon it for a variety of plot or character inspirations.

A Box of Scraps

Collect scraps of material – squares of around 10 cm are ideal – enough to get a feel for the material, design and colours.

The more variety of textures, weaves, colours and designs the better.

Store this in an old shoebox with your other writing “ things”.

When faced with a plot dilemma; be it setting or character, pull out your box of scraps and lay them out on a table; running your hands over them. You might like to grab some random ones and simply trust you will choose the right one for the story.


Choose one or two pieces of material and begin to answer these questions:

  • Who would wear clothing made out of this material?
  • Is your character male or female?
  • Young or old?
  • What piece of clothing is it?
  • Where would they wear this piece of clothing?
  • Why did they choose this piece of clothing to wear today?
  • What did the character choose to put on their feet today?
  • What sort of mood is the character in now? ( is it a reflection of what they are wearing?)
  • Hats and headwear are huge character classification tools, giving detailed insights to interests and personality traits. What – if any is your character wearing?

Even well established characters can be explored with the introduction of this textural journey.  Simply by knowing what the character is wearing and why they chose to wear that particular thing may spark new storylines, back history and motivators for developing the plot. Pieces of vinyl, leather, faux-fur, feathers, satin, silk, cottons, denims and lace all have a life history of their own. Quirks and habits are more likely to surface with clothing a character. Particularly well established characters can often surprise their writers with the admission that they never wear underwear, only buy Louis Vuitton, refuse to wear cotton or love to fly fish on the weekends advertising the fact with their classy baseball cap.

With the scrap in front of you – start writing some background or back story and use the answers to the above questions to round out a new ( or established) character.


If you are stuck with a setting the scrap box might be able to assist.  Decide if your setting is inside or out; a natural or artificial ( a man made) environment.

Either choose a few pieces of material at random or deliberately pick out specific pieces.

The scrap might represent or symbolise a piece of furniture, pillows, coverings, curtains or serves to remind you of a place or space through its colours or textures.

  • Describe the place/ space
  • where is the space/ place? ( bedroom, kitchen, a park?)
  • what season is it?
  • what time of day is it?
  • what are some of the things in the space? ( other furniture, trees? rocks?)
  • who else is in the space/place?
  • What are they doing?
  • what are they saying?
  • Why are they there?

Although it can be argued that building a character from within ensures a more rounded or honest creation, creating a visual image of a character solidifies it; at least for the writer. It is then up to the writer to choose to use those details and descriptions within their text, or to keep it in their minds eye while they write the dialogue and exchanges the character may face. Building a character or a setting is a great deal more involved than getting snapshot of it.  Without a clear picture, many writers find they struggle to continue writing about that character, they becomes muddied or confused, characters simply become carthorses for ideologies or created to solve an issue the plot has right now. It is in these cases that stereotypes begin to rear their ugly heads. Engaging a more tactile based research process for character building will access a different part of the mind with the hope that it opens new opportunities for the writer to explore their text on a fuller basis.

Photo of scrap materials by permission of author.

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Annie Evett has just spent a gruelling (for her) few days sorting out and chucking patchwork  scraps and oddments of materials from garments she made more than 20 years ago. It all about letting go of the things you don’t need to allow the new stuff to come in…( and having an excuse to keep a box of scraps.) Follow Annie here on Twitter and start your escape into her world here

  1. March 24, 2010 12:27 am

    This is a really new and unique method I’ve never heard anything like it before.

    It’s true that I have been told numerous times that designing the characters looks and what they wear is the least important but it really is a good way of working out what that character is like, what they choose to wear and why they choose to wear it.

  2. March 24, 2010 7:52 am

    Thanks Benjamin… it IS unique! it came out of my head two days ago… the following day I used it in my year 2 class for creative writing.. and you should have heard the varied tales which sprung from that session!

    I am certain it would yield similar explosions for older participants.

    though to be fair it is based on an acting technique – where by a character is initiated by a piece of clothing.

  3. March 24, 2010 11:08 am

    Thanks for this Annie. If you don’t mind, I’d like to use this with the writing group I attend, next time it’s my turn to provide the prompts.

  4. March 24, 2010 12:14 pm

    I love this!! I’m going to copy it and try to flesh out my characters and setting.

  5. March 24, 2010 9:00 pm

    Paul – it would be a pleasure! I have extension activities too – which I used yesterday with a year 5 class – Drama based – but can be used as an emotional response to stimuli as well…
    Thanks Hannah – yes – I think it gives a little more depth and ‘feeling’ to characters

  6. March 25, 2010 7:27 am

    thanks for the nice post. i have always found it a bit tough task to create my character. But will do it better from today on!!!!

  7. March 25, 2010 7:28 am

    thanks for the nice post. i have always found it a bit tough task to create my character. But will do it better from today on!!!!

    though i m always late 2 reach here, posts have really helped me

  8. March 25, 2010 11:28 am

    How clever! I love the idea of using something real to create something fictitious. I just hope my wife doesn’t get too ticked off when start pawing through her quilt scraps.

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