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 . . .









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.




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.


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!

Putting our characters in a box

I recently wrapped up an artist-in-residence program where I helped teens develop characters through a series of prop-building projects. This was such a success that I decided to migrate a version of this project over to one of my creative writing classes that I teach through CWC.

In this class, the tween and teen students are writing individual novels over a twenty-week period. To help them better conceive their characters, I had them work on a complementary project, which was to create a miniature kit containing items that were crucial to their characters’ emotional journeys.

I’ve been delighted to see many of these items find their way into the students’ stories; they are now able to enrich their narrative with interesting items and—best of all—the authors know exactly what those items look like.

Here are just a few of the photos of the character kits . . . and, naturally, some of this project spilled over into building other props!


Building an apprentice’s spell kit

I’m currently working as an artist in residence at a local centre, focusing on some art therapy projects with a group of teens. I don’t normally work with that age group (my books are for a lot younger kids), but the organizer was looking for something a little different and thought I would be a good fit.

Rather than working in the traditional fine arts (painting, sculpting, etc.), I’m leading the group in an exploration of characters through prop building and costume design. This is similar to a recent residency I did at an Elementary school, except this particular project involves fewer participants and some more elaborate projects.

One of things I want to do in particular is have each participant design a character survival kit. I was inspired to do this after a visit to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum on Jeju Island in Korea. There they had on display a “vampire killing kit.” At the time, my wife said building such a kit would make for a great class activity—and she was right!


So, I decided to build one myself to test out the project. My kit is for a character in a book I’m writing—the character in question is an apprentice wizard and her spell kit includes various items that are particularly important to her.

I found the box at the craft store, added some specific adornments and then painted it to look like it’s been through the wringer.


As for the stuff inside, well, I gathered it from all over the place and spent hours painting, concocting, and gluing. Once I was satisfied with the contents, I lined the box with floral foam and wedged everything inside. Here’s the result:


Of course, one of the fun parts of such a project is coming up for all the labels for each item in the box. Here’s a list of my contents:

1: Ring of Whispering
(for contacting the apprentice’s master)

2. Jellied Eye
(plucked from a Revellian monkey)

3. Key
(unlocks Master’s book of Charms & Spells ~ this is a duplicate, made in secret)

4. Fingernails (clipped from a Gresswydian girl, aged 12)

5. Blood (syphoned from an Allegrian princess)

6. Ash (scooped from the nest of a Morindian fire dragon)

7. Venom (extracted from a Snardassian ice snake)

8. Cursing Dust (stolen from the ancient tomb of a mummified queen of Dossandros)

9. Fang (taken from a Zelantean wolf)


* * *

I hope the participants will have as much fun making their kits as I did. I can imagine all sorts of kits being developed: Zombie Survival Kit, Steampunk Engineer Tool Kit, Robot Maintenance Kit . . . you name it!