One of my favourite ice-breakers for a new workshop or group is to get everyone, in turn, to say the best thing and the worst thing that's happened to them this week. It's personal enough to get people feeling some connection with each other, since personal information is the coin of so much human interaction. And it's un-threatening enough (after all, you can choose what you say, and what it says about you) that it's not too intimate for a roomfull of strangers. Apparently, the latest thing going round Facebook is '25 Random Things about Me'; now it's cropped up in the members-only part of WriteWords, and the result is fascinating. Some of the facts are astonishingly trivial and others are truly astonishing. Some get you writing the story in your head, some just make you think, 'Good heavens! Who'd have thought it?' Safe in the semi-anonymity of the online world, among online friends, people are remarkably frank: as every teenager at a sleepover knows, there's something about not being able to see each others' faces which makes taboos melt away. And as the thread got longer, with people's lists and others' reaction to them - odd little bits of fellow-feeling over a liking for sweetbreads, or a fancy for some entirely un-fanciable actor - it became less an exercise in egotism, and more like an offering to the group.
But it's not just because it's online. If we'd all had to list 25 facts about ourselves, I'd be willing to bet that most of them would be where we lived, where we went to school, what our middle names are and our favourite food. Dull stuff indeed, and mostly pretty un-surprising if you have any knowledge of the person. Whereas the necessity to think up random things, and quite a lot of them, seems to draw out all sorts of oddities that wouldn't occur to people otherwise. I can't quote anyone else, and the running series of orgasm oddities would be a bit out of place on a nicely-brought up blog, nor have I had the nerve to... (he who was there knows what I mean). But as an example, some of my random things are
3) I loathe to the point of being unable to eat anything involving discernible egg white or hot milk - îles flottantes is my gastronomic waterloo
5) I collect cloisters
23) Even though I could ride perfectly well I once fell off a horse at a walk
Such collections of oddities don't add up to a portrait, and yet they seem to carry an extraordinarily strong sense of a person in all their particularity. Maybe it is that very particularity: to know whether someone's tall or short is one thing, and seems fundamental, but to know that they have a magpie tatooed on one flank is a quite different, and perhaps more evocative thing, even if it does only occupy a square inch or two. And it occurred to me that it would be a very interesting exercise in characterisation.
Lots of how-to-write books recommend writing lists of your characters' attributes, but personally I've never got on with that approach. It seems very arbitrary, as well as boring, to sit there and solemnly think up favourite colours and makes of car, and lists of adjectives about 'brusque' or 'sentimental' aren't much better if they're abstracted from the characters' actions. Since it's contrasts and conflicts that make stories come alive I do sometimes make lists of all my characters' attitudes to a particular thing, so as to focus on what their different reactions would be to a situation, but generally the thought of filling in these forms - yes, some teachers actually hand them out, would you believe - is deeply depressing. Whereas what I suspect is that if you peer into space to find the random things the very need for randomness somehow circumvents logic and linear thinking, and gets at those things you didn't know you knew.
Most writers have had the experience of things appearing on the page almost before they arrived in our heads, and definitely hadn't deliberately thought up: someone's red hair, or Presbyterianism, that it isn't she who did the murder or he who gets the happy ending. Even if you don't end up putting in the distaste for egg white or the magpie tattoo (no, it's not me that has one), I feel as if such things would somehow inform the character, make their functional role in the plot less stark, and their living, breathing oddity more real. I can't honestly say I've tried this yet, but if I find a character being hard to pin down, I just might. Meanwhile, it's not copyright, so I do hope someone will give it a go, and let us know here how you get on.