Adopted Ancestors: Writing Prompt


Faces hold stories. Across every culture and language, the human face has universal expressions that alert us to the internal state of another. As you are developing characters in your short stories, novels, plays, and poems remember that the doorway to reading another person is through the face. Here are a handful of writing prompts to practice building characters:


PROMPT No. 1: Emotive Faces

Describe a complex emotion or response a character is having purely through descriptive language of their face. Be sure not to name the actual emotion. The operative understanding of this exercise is that details are highly communicative in the task of showing rather than telling. As writing workshop guru Pat Schneider writes, “If I tell you my character has grey hair, you will not see her. If I tell you she has a tiny scar at the upper left corner of her lip from which protrudes one grey whisker- you will make up the rest of her face with absolute clarity.” (Pat Schneider, Writing Alone and with Others, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003, 79). Writing, while classified as a literary art, is also a visual art that relies on the storehouse of images that populate our readers’ imaginations. In other words, we must be able to see characters in order for others to know them.


PROMPT No. 2: Adopted Ancestors

In Seattle, I find myself attracted to the many junk and thrift shops. One of the categories of treasure that I find there are vintage ephemera including old photos. The absolute stranger held momentarily in time is a brilliant starting point for a story. Practice developing a character study by fleshing out the life of an unknown person from a photo or painting. These adopted ancestors, if you will, are fodder for the imagination. A baby in the arms of a young mother at uni, a family portrait at Coney Island, a curly-haired toddler on the farmhouse steps: these are seed images with every question waiting for the author to answer.


PROMPT No. 3: On Locale

Local hubs in cities or towns are fabulous for people watching. Carry a notebook to a public park, a city bus, a local coffee shop or pub, or a bench outside. Take 30-60 minutes and jot down what you notice. Gestures, faces, speech patterns, styles of clothing, and bits of overheard conversation are all flecks of gold in a river of people.


PROMPT No. 4: Embodied Ancestors

If you choose to work in creative non-fiction and are writing from experiences with your actual ancestors, I recommend displaying a variety of photos of them over their lifespan. Often we carry characteristics, mannerisms, and gestures within our own bodies, but photos can be helpful markers to identify particularities of a person's laugh, the way they stood, smiled, carried out mischief or bore pain. For this writing prompt, describe an ancestor's external body and face in such a way that expresses their internal essence. See if you can also trace the ways that you bear them and their story in your own body.


Characters, like mosaics, are composites made of many collected fragments. Rather than appearing in the doorway of the mind whole, nuanced characters often come from a sustained habit of observing rich varieties of people just doing life.

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