Sep 13, 2010

Prue Mason - Character to Plot Workshop

A strongly formed character can tell his own story

One of the more interactive workshops of the CYA Writers Conference focused on how to build a story starting with a character. Prue Mason was our presenter and quickly got us started on an exercise she calls 'Wearing the Hat!

We started off by brainstorming some of the things we would want to know about a characters (such as gender, dreams, talents, personality, name, faults, place and era they live, etc) and then broke those into inner qualities and outer factors (fears, dreams and virtues belong to the inner character, whereas location, family and name are outer characteristics and influences).

Prue then handed us each a seven page worksheet and... hats. Yep, hats. Several hats in various styles and condition along with small containers hosting items such as stones or keys. The idea was we should get our first impression of the hat and work out what kind of character would wear it. I found this exercise quite powerful. I'm very visual (read: daydreamer) and had a strong image of my character in the worn bush style sun-hat.

The worksheet asks us questions about the character, including their birthdate based on an astrological personality. We then go on to explore the influence of the special item (mine was an old key), does it give your MC special powers, or help to solve a mystery?

Then the fun really began. We tried on the hat and interviewed ourselves as the character! I started to see a different perspective on my character and their situation.

From there, a plot started to form and we recorded our story ideas for this particular character. There were some great variations put up from the participants including:
  • A female miner all butch but with a femininity she hides who needs to be rescued after a mine collapse, but, ends up rescuing the man sent in for her, and,
  • A wombat well known for rescuing his national park friends from a bushfire.
  • A young palaeontologist student who has the gift of seeing how creatures died when she touches their remains, comes across a colleagues body at the dig site and must help the detective solve the crime without revealing her 'gift'. (That one was mine, and I'll write it for this years NaNoWriMo, but must admit I'd just finished hearing about Sheryl Gwyther's story set on a dinosaur dig, so my imagination points are lower).
You can find out more about Prue Mason, her workshops and the books she writes at her website:

Want to have a go at the hat task? Pick a hat (try to go with your first instinct and don't think too much about it):

Or grab a hat from your own collections, you could always google something like: mysterious hats and see what you get!

Then, combine your choice with one of the following items:
  • a key
  • a scrap of paper
  • a bloodied knife
  • an expensive pen
  • a dog collar
  • an old book
  • a folded photograph
  • a ring
Now start building a character and see what story forms!


  1. Wow, great prompts and writing ideas from that workshop. Thanks for sharing.


  2. What a wonderful way to have fun building a character. Doing it this way could result in a more in-depth character even. Great post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  3. Charmaine, I loved the sound of that story you thought up at Prue Mason's session - lovely combination of what I imagine could be a thriller, a mystery and lots of bones! Dinosaurs and all. Keep going with it, won't you.

  4. Great exercise. I really like the idea of using hats, especially since if the writer puts on a hat, they can literally step into their character's place.

  5. I like the idea of hats and props. I'll remember that when I'm trolling for an idea.

  6. Clarissa, Mason, Gabi and M Pax - This would be fun in the classroom as well. Of course I've only touched on what Prue Mason covers in her workshops, but it's still fun to have a go at it :-)

    Sheryl - Thanks, my imagination doesn't stray too far from the last thing I heard (lazy brain), I would like to write that story - for research I just have to raid Emily's bookshelf (PS She's pouring through 'Secrets of Eromanga' every spare second she gets) :-)

  7. That's an interesting exercise for building a character, Charmaine! I will definitely give it a try if I'm ever stuck in a rut with my story.

    Write on!

  8. I'd not thought of hats as a writing/character que but it works so well! Thanks for sharing this great tip :)

  9. What a fantastic exercise to get those creative juices flowing. Thanks for sharing.

  10. I love that you are sharing these with everyone and that the CYA Conference was worth blogging about.

    So glad that you liked it - and your notes are wonderful and full of interesting things to help - I am reading them all, wishing I got to see more of the presenters at the conference.

    CYA next year!
    CYA Conference Coordinator

  11. hello! thanks for sharing that - sound like a great exercise

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  13. Vatche, Lynda, Caroline, Jane and Michelle - Thanks for stopping by, I can't emphasise enough how much I got out of attending the conference - lots of new perspectives to take in. :-)

    Tina - Good to see you in here! The conference was so great, I'll have lots to blog about for ages yet :-) I've just sent you guys a big thank you letter for organising it.