Playing with Dolls

Two rather serious looking character dolls.

On Mother’s Day, Win presented me with a kit for making wooden figures. She hovered as I unpacked the teeny wooden dolls and acrylic paints, eager to get started. I decided to indulge her; clearly, this was a gift she’d given me with her own enjoyment in mind.

Win had no shortage of ideas for her doll. In fact, she painted it quickly and started on another. Soon, a small flock of wooden figures accumulated on the table, while I was still starting at one bare wooden piece. Finally, I conjured an image of Marin, the main character of the Young Adult book that I’m writing.¬† I dipped my brush in brown paint and started with the hair.

I have been writing the novel, called Weaving the Sea, for two years. I thought that I knew what Marin looked like. I knew that her clothes would be the plain, rough peasant clothes she chooses over the splendid finery that would be more appropriate for a girl of a noble family.  I knew that her hair would fall in unruly curls.

But, there were other details that I didn’t know until I began painting. For example, I didn’t know that she would wear a red cape, which had, of course, belonged to her father. More interestingly, I didn’t know that her curls would be streaked¬† with thick ropes of silvery white, a physical manifestation of the mysterious magic that hums through her.

This was such a fun way to explore and discover my character that I repeated the process with Brocht, another important character from the same story. I found that, similarly, there were details that I knew would be present (his dark hair) and others that I hadn’t expected (his bright blue military uniform and his general emo look).

The Marin and Brocht dolls have become an inspiring presence on my writing desk. The characters feel real to me now in a way that they didn’t before because making the dolls forced me to make choices about the characters. And, even though the process felt too playful to be called work, the dolls have moved my writing along in important ways.

I went to the craft store and bought more paints and more dolls so that I could bring this project to my writing group. If I was still teaching in a classroom, I would do this with students, too. I’d ask them to make dolls of the characters in their own writing and of the characters in the books they read, as a creative envisioning practice. It might not be a powerful tool for every writer, but approaching a story from a different direction, and in a different medium, will at the very least give the writer a break and a fresh eye on her work.

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