The August Challenges #1 – Creating a Poem from a Character

Jessica Walker, a former Foyle Winner, introduces the first of our four August challenges – a month of inspiring writing tasks from Foyle Young Poets to get you reading and creating! This challenge asks you to write a poem featuring a vivid, jump-off-the-page character.

It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.

― William Faulkner

Characters are at the heart of any good story; and a good story is often propelled by a good character. They need to be interesting, vibrant and varied; but most importantly they need to feel alive. Whether it’s a character created to love or hate they need to pull the reader in and cause a reaction of interest or emotion.

Characters don’t just belong in novels or short stories; they can breathe life into a poem as well. Often when I write a poem and I am feeling uninspired by my surroundings or my own feelings I will simply create a new person to write about. This person is sometimes based on a real person I know or is a total figment of my imagination. I give them a face, mind, body; a background story, a personality – the whole package. I often try to think of a quirk, something a little bit weird – which is often what poet Emily Berry creates. Her character ‘Arlene’ is featured in a couple of her poems and there is a sense of something a little strange about her character.

In our house we live with Arlene. My little sister has a plan.
She has what they call a beginner’s mind. She sees everything
from an un-given-up perspective. I’m frightened; I know
Arlene better than anyone; she knows me better. Esme says
if I’m scared we can’t win. But I am scared. Arlene drags me
over to the window where the black mould has made
a map of Australia.

 Emily Berry, Arlene and Esme

Characters can also be based on real life people that you may know or not know. Robert Lowell here writes about his aunt and uncle:

Up in the air
by the lakeview window in the billiards-room,
lurid in the doldrums of the sunset hour,
my Great Aunt Sarah
was learning Samson and Delilah.
She thundered on the keyboard of her dummy piano,
with gauze curtains like a boudoir table,
accordionlike yet soundless.

― Robert Lowell, My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow

And here Jack Kerouac writes about American comedian, film star, mime artist and musician Arthur ‘Harpo’ Marx:

Harpo, in your recent nightclub appearance
in New Orleans were you old?
were you still chiding with your horn
in the cane at your golden belt?

― Jack Kerouac, To Harpo Max

The Challenge

My challenge to you is to create a poem with such a vibrant character they almost feel real.

First, have a think of any real life people that are interesting to you that you don’t know well. Once you have this person in mind, quickly jot down a few words that describe them. Write down the first nouns, adjectives or adverbs that come to mind. My example:

My person: A regular customer in a café I work at.
Aged. Tartan. Tattoos. Quick. Misunderstood. Whispering. Perching. Artist. He. Euan. Boots. Polaroids. Paint. Smile. Laughing. Sigh. Eggs. Quirky. Strange.

Now, start with their name and arrange these words into a short poem, adding in some extra words where you see fit. My example:

Euan.
Laughing in Tartan,
He is perching and sighing out polaroids,
with a quick whispering voice.
Ben.
with sleeves full of art
tattooed with aged paint
as he his smiling
and using quirky, strange anecdotes

Now you have a short poem that has kick-started a character into play. From here, you can start thinking about creating a story for them. Think about what kind of life they lead at home, their youth, and their future. Think about how they would react to situations or how they would convey emotions. Think about their hobbies and their likes and dislikes. Keep adding more detail to your character. Create a small mind-map if this would help.

Now create another poem combining some of your character words and using the extra detail. Think of a setting for this character. For mine, he is a customer in the café I work at and so I used the café scene but also added in his home as an extra setting. I imagined what his home would be like; perhaps do the same for your character. Imagine their home, work, local pub or park for example. In Robert Lowell’s poem we saw earlier, he combined the two practices of describing a home while describing a person:

Like my Grandfather, the décor
was manly, comfortable,
overbearing, disproportioned.

Your poem can be describing this new person, watching them perform an action or writing about an everyday habit they have. It can be from your point of view or the view of someone else! My example:

he’s over there. him with the tartan skin, sitting in the corner
decorated with paisley. i serve him two slices of toast
buttered on both sides with UFO’s placed on top
he leaves the yolks and a single crust.
it’s twelve. he’s here again armed with black and white pages
pretending to be news, but he skips and thumb flips
to the checker board and fills in the spaces
solving the riddles and spelling it perfectly.
i make his coffee; cuban and milky and i wonder about his house
i imagine the eccentric, the acidic paintings, the trippy wall hangings
and the tartan coating every soft furnishing
curtains and cushions that lay on the border.
i wonder if he has a wife and what they would talk about;
how the answer to forty seven down was tricky, both literal and true.
if he sold a painting would they drink and dance
would they buy new tartan things. i know he would tell me.
or perhaps our encounters are enough;
brief pleasantries and he leaves a tip.

Good luck and get writing. Watch your new character come alive!

Sending in your poems

This challenge is now closed. Out of the many wonderful poems we received, Jessica selected five outstanding pieces of work:

  • ‘Curiosity’ by John Blackmore
  • ‘Mail Lady’ by Maia Sauer
  • ‘Lilith’ by Soyla Ise
  • ‘Unrequited’ by Rachel Glass
  • ‘On a Substitute Teacher’ by Elian Knell

You can read these poems and the other winning August challenge poems by following the links on the top right hand side of this page

Huge thanks to all who entered, and congratulations to the winners!

Jessica Walker studies English Language, Linguistics and Creative Writing at York St John University. She is a winner of the Foyle Young Poet Award 2013 and took second prize in the Cumbria Young Writers Award 2014. Jessica attended the Tower Poetry Summer School 2014 and will be published in their forthcoming anthology. She was a festival reviewer at Dorothy Wordsworth’s Festival of Women’s Poetry and has dedicated time to inspire poetry in schools through competitions and literary magazines. She is one of The Poetry Society’s Foyle summer interns for 2015. 

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