Writing Lessons from a Mannequin

While in Chicago, DH and I awoke one night to a very loud, bothersome and still-unidentified vibration.  It was 4:30 in the morning.  My courageous DH braved the boogey man and opened our hotel door. 

“You have to see this.”

I braved the hotel hall in my nightie only to be confronted by a slim porcelain leg.  Actually four.  I would post a pic of the mannequins outside our door, but they were lounging in a rather compromised position. 

Needless to say, we giggled ourselves back to sleep and shared the hysterical pictures of the motionless mannequins that soundlessly made their way throughout the hall (and poses) over the following days.

Then I got to thinking about characters. 

To me, they are the essence of a great book.  I would rather read a dull plot with exciting characters than an inspiring plot with motionless mannequins. 

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Mister and Missus Mann E. Quin’s Chicago antics.  I just don’t want to read about them for an entire novel.  In fact, following lifeless, expressionless characters through the twists and turns of a riveting story is the fastest way to get bumped from my TBR list.

And so I give you:

Lessons from a Mannequin

  • Give your characters a head.  Seriously, Mister and Missus were headless wonders.  I suppose it’s so we don’t get freaked out by finding our neighbor’s mug on an overgrown doll, but still.  In real life, MCs need to have the tools to succeed.  They shouldn’t necessarily utilize them or even realize they have them immediately.  But they should possess some sort of strength that gives them an edge.  As an FYI, brains come in handy.
  • But, if you want to go brawn, I ask that you give your characters some flaws.  The perfectly sculpted creatures in the hall were a bit nerve-wracking.  I mean who wants to gaze at flawless wonders?  No scars were visible.  No wrinkles or stretch marks or love handles could be found.  Not a single mole or ingrown toenail existed between the lovely couple.  Ugh.  Make your MCs real.  
  • Don’t forget the details that make your MCs unique.  Mister and Missus Mann E. Quin were barely distinguishable from each other.  Granted Mister had more muscle tone and Missus had larger…pecs.  But all in all, a slimmer build doth not set characters apart.  Nothing about Mister indicated his penchant for scotch and water, and we had no clue that Missus was a bit capricious with a loyalty stronger than our aging black lab’s.  All we knew was that clothes were hard to come by and they enjoyed frolicking in the halls of a very prestigious hotel.
  • Throw in a little intrigue.  Aside from obvious character traits, it’s fun to give your MC a bit of mystery.  Provide a quirk of some kind that plays into the larger picture.  One that subtly speaks of the past and promises interest in the future.  Yep, our otherwise silent friends did have one quirk that made DH and I scratch our heads in wonder.  Mann E. wore a hard hat.  One day it was yellow.  Another day it was white.  Sometimes there was writing on it and other times it was blank.  Intriguing to say the least.

I hope you enjoyed this lovely tutorial.  I only wish I could illustrate it so you could truly experience the humor behind this post.  However, as I do write for younguns, I’ll leave the pictures to your imagination.

What other tips do you have for building strong characters?  Or, if you feel so inclined, please share your mannequin moments with the rest of us.  We could all use a good clean laugh. 


22 responses to “Writing Lessons from a Mannequin

  1. That’s so funny! You got a laugh AND an awesome blog post from that. Who would’ve thought?

    These are really great tips! I like #3. It’s good to give details about a characters that indicate something about them without actually having to tell it.

  2. Very weird, but pretty funny. The maids must have been in on it, for the mannequins to stay there that whole time.

    My only mannequin moment was when I was in a department store with my then four-year-old. He had been standing behind me at the cash register, and suddenly he was gone. I panicked for a minute, but then realized he was only about five feet away, holding a pose on a stand with a group of mannequins. They had heads, though, so he didn’t look completely out of place. 😉

    As for giving characters character, I decided after breaking my toe this weekend, that I’m going to have the MC in my WIP break his, too. It will make him more vulnerable, and he won’t be able to get away as fast when he comes across the bad guys.

    • Great idea to use your own pain to enhance your story. At least the broken toe won’t be for nothin’! Hope it heals soon, though that can be quite the painful break.

      I can just picture your little one striking a pose. Too cute!


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  4. Mannequins seem to be on the move. One of my writer friends recently sent an e-mail saying she felt someone was watching her while she worked at the writers’ studio. She had snapped a photo and attached it — the dress shop next door had set two naked mannequins outside, and it looked as though they were peering in the studio’s back door.

    Some folks (and mannequins) have a very bizarre sense of humor, that’s for sure. The antics made a great post, and you did a masterful job of linking the mannequins to characters in our stories.


    • LOL! I feel for your writer friend. I find mannequins quite creepy–headless or otherwise!

      Thanks for sharing your story. I’m quite sure we all have a mannequin in the closet, so to speak.

  5. Great tutorial Cat! 🙂 I love it how we can draw writing lessons from almost anything. This time you got to laugh and got inspired enough for a great blog post.
    I like characters with flaws… But not just, “Joey smoked a lot and bit his fingernails” or “Julie had trust issues” I like to see how these flaws affect their daily lives and why do they have these flaws in the first place…

    • Absolutely. That is one of the most important aspects of developing character. Giving depth and meaning to their actions and reactions based on their inherent traits.

  6. Okay just the thought of the mannequins makes me laugh. I can just imagine waiting to see what compromising position they’ll be in later. Chicago sounds wonderful.
    You always have such helpful information in your posts. This one included.
    Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

  7. In places like hotels, you never know what can come next. That’s why it is always safe to be with someone 🙂

    • So true! It made me giggle, but at the same time, I’m glad DH was with me. Never know when those mannequins might decide to take up residence by a new door and God only knows I didn’t want to be in their way!

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Hope to see you around.

  8. Cat, great advice – as always! You’re such an insightful person!!

  9. Welcome back, Cat. What an interesting teaser for a story: Mannequins in the hallway of your hotel… that’s cool.

    I am all about the character. I probably argue this so much that it’s redundant now, but I’ll keep saying it, and I hope you will, too.

    Character. Story. Plot. In that order.

    I always say: Characters are the bones, Story the bloody heart. Plot is just the road they take.

    I argue sometimes the difference between story and plot. I guess I’d have to say that story doesn’t always involve conflict, while plot is all pro/antagonist driven push-me-pull-me action that is outside of the character (the road).

    The story, though, that ~is~ the character, the heart.

    – Eric

    • Nice analogy, Eric. I’ll have to paste this into my memory for future reference.

      Like you, I believe that character is it. Without a good character connection I might as well be reading the back of the shampoo bottle.

      Which I do, by the way~ cat

  10. You are welcome and keep writing good posts. 🙂

  11. Man, I want to see those pictures!

    Angela @ The Booskelf Muse

  12. Love that your post was highlighted on Adventures in Children’s Publishing blog, you rock! Love ya girlie!

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