Prompts: Discovering our characters from outside and inside

Aude Lafait (Le Coin Blue) picks our Prompts project up with a one hour classroom proposal that predominantly seeks to «turning shadows into characters».  The intended search starts from a physical-external identification of our character’s signs and deeps down throughout a four steps process into his/her voice up to a stream of consciousness monologue. This prompt is advised for beginners although Lafait also suggests a version for advanced students



1.Description of aspects or tecniques to be explored

This prompt has been created by François Bon, French author and creative writing teacher, inspired by Bernard-Marie Koltès. It has been made to help understand better the character(s). It’s a 4 steps prompt that allows us to perceive from inside and outside our character. Where are they coming from ? In his notebooks, the writer Bernard-Marie Koltès created his own prompts to structure his writing, to turn these shadows into real characters. Writers’ notebooks are in general a gold mine for teachers or writers. This one can be used in many ways as a launching ramp for fiction or for advanced students.

As an introduction : this quotation from Sylvie Germain (French author) : «Un jour, ils sont là. Un jour, sans aucun souci de l’heure. On ne sait pas d’où ils viennent, ni pourquoi ni comment ils sont entrés. Ils entrent toujours ainsi, à l’improviste et par effraction. Et cela sans faire de bruit, sans dégâts apparents. Ils ont une stupéfiante discrétion de passe-muraille. Ils : les personnages».

English translation:

«One day, here they’re. One day, no matter what time it is. We don’t know where they’re coming from, why they’re here or how they got in. They always break in unexpectedly… Without making noise, without damages. They’re discreet and walk through walls. They: the characters.»

2. Prompt

Step one (15 minutes) : write about a typical physical sign of your character. For example, a zoom on a part of the face, like the nose, the eyebrows, wrinkles around the mouth, big ears and so on…

Step two (15 minutes) : is called «Deep down in his/her heart.» Start writing with this sentence «Deed down in his/her heart, he/she…» It’s not any more something visual, as in step 1. It is invisible, a specificity of the personality, the inwardness, the intimacy of your character. You will use a metaphor, like if you were playing for example, «if you were…, what would you be… ?» If the character was an element, what would he or she be? Would he/she be the storm or the heat? If he/she was a piece of land, would he/she be a forest or a desert?

Step three (15 minutes): imagine now your character somewhere, in a scene of his/her everyday life. Use the third person, and picture your character in a place, that reflects him/her. Choose this place as if it was an extension of your character. Write a scene that shows your character into this place.

Step four (15 minutes): how the character talks, his voice, the expressions he uses. Write a monologue (using the first person) to illustrate how the character thinks about life (politics, love, food…), or about a special event like his/her next holidays, his previous insomnias, etc.

Exemple by Bernard-Marie Koltès:

«Il y a trop de nuit, une par 24 heures, quoi qu’on fasse ; et trop longues, bien trop longues, avec tout ce qui y bouge et qui n’a pas de nom, qui y vit à l’aise comme nous le jour, dans notre élément naturel, eux, c’est la nuit, cachés derrière les arbres, le long des murs, cachés…»

Our «free» translation:

«There are too many nights, one every 24 hours whatever we do. They are too long, far too long. These shadows moving around, as comfortable with the night as we are with the day. In the night, they hide behind trees, along the walls…»


3. Sample paragraph from a book which clearly shows the searched exercise


4. Brief comment regarding teachers’ results with the prompt experience

This is the basic prompt that we normally use with the beginners. This is a good prompt to be propelled into fiction. To feel a character. But there are many different ways to adapt it for more advanced students : do all the 4 steps in one hour without pause. Read and give feedbacks. Then, do it for a second character and then, thirdly, ask the students to make the two characters meet. Write the scene when they meet.

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