Picture This: Part Two

4-5 Minute Read

In this creative writing warm-up activity, we’ll hop into the time machine and travel back to the moment when a photograph was taken, entirely so that we can conduct a fictional interview with the person behind the lens.

The fun thing about fictional interviews is that you get to make up the question and the answer. It’s like having a conversation with yourself, if you were somehow able to shape shift into two separate characters.

One way to begin this conversation is by imagining that the photographer in question is going to be the main character of a story your writing. What do you need to find out in order to ensure that both the scene and the character feel convincing? Pay attention to specific details, ask pressing questions, and don’t stop until you have a clear sense of this individual’s motivations.

Getting Started

For this exercise, you’ll need:

  • A time machine–or, you know, an active imagination. Whichever you happen to have on hand.
  • A photograph that you find genuinely intriguing
  • About fifteen minutes of your time

Take a good long look at the photograph you chose, and then ask yourself: what does this image tell me about the person who took it? What kind of person might be attracted to this scene? Was it carefully orchestrated, or does the composition feel spontaneous?

Next, make a list of questions you’d like to ask this photographer, based on the image before you. You can ask them anything at all, from the mundane to the profound, but keep in mind that your aim to get some sense of the photographer’s motivation: what makes them tick, what they wanted from this photograph, and, more broadly, where their desire to document the world comes from.

If you like, you can list these questions, and then write your own responses to them. This kind of fictional dialogue can be a great way to get to know a character and to gain a better sense of what their arc might look like.

Remember, too, that if you do a great job of introducing a character, your reader is going to care about them, and so you need to follow through and complete that character’s arc, entirely so that your audience knows what becomes of them.

Imagine if your favourite tv show got cancelled abruptly, and a final episode never aired. It would be so disappointing if you didn’t at least get an inkling of what happens to the main characters on the show, and what their fate looks like. Providing this sense of futurity is certainly one way you can reward your reader’s loyalty. But it’s also one final measure you can take to make your character feel real. Whether we call it a fate, a future, or a destiny, we all have one. It’s one of those shared qualities that holds people in common. If you give your character one, too, the worlds you create with your writing will feel populated not just by characters, but by real living beings, which is, I think, is an important goal for every writer.

One Last Thing

In this exercise, we focussed on photography, but it works just as well with any creative endeavour. The next time you’re walking down the street and you see an interesting building, ask yourself what it tells you about the people who helped create it and what their motivations might have been. Pay attention to practical concerns, but go deeper, too, and keep looking until you notice something that’s not immediately obvious. It’s this willingness to be patient and to consider both your subject and your character carefully that will enable you to bring them to life in your writing.

Looking Back

There are so many ways to think about motivation, and, of course, creativity is just one of them. It’s been my experience, however, that how people spend their time–as well as what they spend their time making–tells us so much about who they are.

And sometimes, these habits of being don’t make a great deal of sense. Nor should they: people are weird and wonderful, and often full of surprises, so when you’re writing, don’t be afraid to make your characters idiosyncratic, and don’t deprive them of their contradictions either. If you have a character who works for a tax agency, put a hand glider in their garage, and then try to figure out how it got there. And if you can’t figure it out, then embrace the mystery, and trust that your reader will, too.


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Cold Opens Copyright © 2022 by Dave Hickey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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