Propping up our stories: creating characters with prop-building

Propping up our stories: creating characters with prop-building

I’ve been doing a lot of prop-building lately—for example, crafting dragon eggs. Since prop-building is such an important part of my writing process, it’s something I like to bring to my students as well.

Getting away from the screen

One of the great things about prop-building is that it allows me to work on my book without staring at the screen. Let’s face it: Writing is hard and often exhausting. Sometimes, I feel like I have no words left in my brain, but I still have the desire to playin my world.

I’ve found that prop-building is a way to accomplish that. Working with tangible objects, working with my hands, has helped me to sort out plot problems. It’s kind of like doing the dishes and being suddenly struck by a eureka moment. Of course, when you wash dishes, all you get is clean dishes. When you build a prop, you get a tangible item from an imaginary world.

Nightmare Bottles

I’ve been working with a group of tween and teen writers this spring and one of the things I’ve tried to do is bring in the prop-building angle.

One of our first projects was to build “nightmare bottles.” This involves creating a character and metaphorically putting their fears in a bottle. Of course, this could provide fuel for a story in its own right, but the main purpose here was just to coax the kids into some brainstorming time.

Here’s some of their creations . . .

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Character Kits

The main prop-building project I introduced this term was to create a personal kit for each character. This could also be metaphorical or could actually appear in the students’ stories. I’m big on inventing interesting “tools” for my characters and, especially if you are writing a fantasy book, I think you have a lot of opportunities to add extra sizzle to your story.

For this project, the students get to decorate and paint the kits themselves, then fill them with a variety of mini-props that fit their specific characters’ journeys.

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This project has also tasked my students with a different approach to creativity. I’ve been trying to make sure they solve some of the problems they face.For example, one of my students wanted to build a spy kit with a gun. I looked around for toy guns and felt the creativity being sapped right out of me. I decided we could do something more original and unique. So, instead of buying a pre-made toy pistol, I bought tiny water guns and told the student to use it as a base for building something more unique.

He took one look at the brightly colored water guns and scoffed. I couldn’t convince him what a little paint a few cannibalized odds and ends could do. There was nothing I could do to change his mind, so I went home and built my own gun.

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Admittedly, my gadget turned out part steampunk, part alien ray gun, but I hope I’ve made my point! And, now, I have something more unique and interesting that I can use—yep, I decided this can belong to a character who’s currently running around causing havoc in one of my own stories.

That’s the power of prop-building!

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A new addition to the dragon’s nest

A new addition to the dragon’s nest

I have been building dragon eggs for a couple of years now, but I recently took on the challenge of crafting a giant one. I originally wanted to build an egg so that I could use it as reference in a book I’m working on (not the MAIN book I’m working on, but a side project).

I realized that my eggs were all too small—I wanted a model that would be the exact same size as the one my characters would have to deal with in the book.

So, I hunkered down over spring break and set to work . . . Here’s all the stages, starting with the raw materials: a giant plastic Easter egg shell, acrylic jewels, and plaster.

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I started by plastering. This is the same type of material that doctors use for casts, but you can buy it at most art stores. I cut the plaster sheets into manageable strips then begin forming designs on the shell.

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The plaster dries quickly, but can snap off if you’re not careful. A coat of mod-podge does wonders to keep it intact.

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Once I was done with the plastering, I began the bejeweling phase, using a variety of different sizes and colors—the color variation doesn’t actually matter, because everything gets painted over at the end.

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I like to start with a black coat of paint, then build up color afterwards.

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I chose metallic greens for the final color, so started dry-brushing over the black undercoat.

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Here’s the final product, sitting in my studio and shown next to an average hen’s egg, to show scale!

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And here’s four of my dragon eggs, showing the different sizes, colors, and patterns.

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The nightmare escapes: a writing prompt at our creativity camp

The nightmare escapes: a writing prompt at our creativity camp

My wife and I our currently in Korea, teaching a creativity camp for tweens and teens. We’re combing writing, art, prop building, and acting to provide the students with a week of intensive creativity!

One of our opening activities was based around the idea of bottling dreams. Students brainstormed characters, focusing on their fears and nightmares. The students then “built” the nightmares by imagining that they had been bottled.

Students could be as literal or symbolic as they wished. I brought a lot of general supplies such as black sand, hair, cotton, and feathers, all of which could be trimmed or stretched to represent the negative qualities of nightmares. There were also some more “on-the-nose” objects, such as plastic bugs and snakes!

For story purposes, those bottles get accidentally opened, unleashing story inspiration!

Here are some photos of the students’ bottles and brainstorming . . .

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The Unexpected Mummy: combining creative writing with art history

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I’m continuing to lead a series of workshops through CWC called Picture Perfect: Exploring Creative Writing through the Lens of Art History.

We started with prehistoric cave art and moved on to ancient Egyptian art. The students built miniature mummies out of clay. Then, after letting them dry for a week, they “embalmed” them with plaster and decorated them with paint and jewels.

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These props inspired the students to write short stories about characters who die unexpectedly and go through the mummification process. The hitch was that they had to write the story from the first person point of view, which meant describing what it feels like to die and enter the Egyptian afterlife.

Here are the final version of their props. In addition to many human mummies, we ended up with a falcon and a couple of cats. Some students chose to do mummies with luxurious decoration, while others took a more humble approach. It all depended on the character situation in the individual story.

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The dragon hatchery expands

I’m continuing my work as an artist-in-residence with a group of teens at a local specialized learning center. A key goal of the residency is to provide a safe and fun place where the participants can create and do some art therapy.

In the first few weeks, we worked on building and sculpting dragon scales. This quickly migrated into the creation of dragon eggs—a far more ambitious project, and one that requires a great deal of patience.

The students have shown that patience and have enjoyed coming up with the styles, textures, and shapes to go with their eggs. There are many different approaches to this project, as is shown in the photos below . . .

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Many of the students have ambitious ideas and plans for their eggs, so there has been a lot of problem-solving required. Depending on the student’s plan, I’ve had to go and fetch very specific materials or tools to help them achieve their vision. As part of this process, we’ve decided that we should now build “nests” for these eggs. That’s going to be tricky, since I’m sure everyone is going to have a completely different plan . . . but oh, well! That’s what I’m here for.

Just add water . . . ?

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This week, I rolled out one of my favorite classes as part of my CWC creative writing workshops: A Monster in a Bottle.

In this class, the students each assemble a prop that consists of a miniature glass bottle stuffed with monster parts: claws, fangs, eyes, fur, feathers and that sort of thing. I actually only let students pick from three different supply piles, as I feel this makes them a bit more creative and considerate.

The idea is that this bottle is something they can buy at a pet store. It then has to be “hatched” through a series of special instructions . . . which, of course, the students have to write.

Here’s some of the photos from the day’s activity. As always, I’m continually amazed at the ingenuity of the students! Some of them definitely thought outside the bottle . . .

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It’s a big world out there . . .

Last week, I taught a creative writing camp for the Creative Writing for Children Society on the theme of “Secret Worlds” with author Kallie George. We’ve both written books that involved secret settings, so it was a perfect fit for us to teach. In particular, we decided to focus the topics on characters who get miniaturized and have to survive in what is now a giant world.

We began by having the kids construct miniature peg figures and writing a short poem about being small. This was a great exercise because these peg figures served to be their scale models for the week. They never had to remember how big their characters were—they were right in front of them!

 

After this project, the students began writing stories about characters who discover a shrink ray machine and accidentally (or in some case, purposely!) get shrunk down. To help with this part, we built shrink ray props. So, now, everyone in the class had a miniaturized figure and a shrink ray gun. The kids were off to the races, writing their stories.

 

The next step was to have the students imagine a single room in the house as an epic landscape that their miniaturized characters had to cross. So, for example, a pile of dirty laundry became Mount Clothes, and that sort of thing. This was a fun way to get them to think about perspective.

Then, as the characters crossed this landscape we introduced the problem of an attack by a creature. The kids picked critters from a bag, receiving things such as spiders, cockroaches, and centipedes (these were plastic critters, of course, but there was still much screaming). We then had the students pick items from a second bag, and these were things that their characters might find on the floor and use to survive the creature. I call that particular workshop “Big Problem, Small Solution.”

Here are some photos of their brainstorming sheets, which the students used to figure out their plan of attacks against their critters.

 

As you can see by the photos,  items the characters had at their disposal included stamps, toothpicks, birthday candles, bottle camps, spools, and miniature cocktail decorations! The result was a lot of fun solutions.

A second major  project we had the students do at the camp was to take all their props and produce a short script and storyboard for a four-minute movie about how they themselves got shrunk down at camp and had to survive. They loved this creative process and, of course, they all had props ready to go.