Using HONY to Create a Character

“HONY? What the heck is that?” You might be asking.

HONY stands for Humans of New York, and it is (in my mind) one of the greatest blogs EVER.

This past week, a student wrote a great poem about how we, as humans, often base our judgments of others on appearances. The poem reminded me of an exercise I did in my writing classes last year using HONY, so I thought I’d share it today.

We all judge others, no matter how much we despise it. In fact, it’s hard not to. Studies have shown that we make judgments about others almost instantaneously, no matter how hard we try not to or how self-aware we are.

It happens.

When we’re creating a character, one of the first elements we begin to develop is what they look like and how they dress. We hope that our descriptions will help convey our character’s personality, socio-economic status, style, culture, beliefs, etc.

The question is, does it? Have we done what we set out to do? Did our readers get that first instantaneous impression that we wanted them to get?

One way to practice this skill is by using the HONY blog. You can also follow HONY on Facebook.

HONY was started by a young photographer named Brandon. He took portraits of people in New York City. He then started collecting comments and stories about the people he photographed.

They’re fascinating little snippets into people’s lives. And, they are often completely surprising – the homeless man who actually has a doctorate in physics, the lovely young woman who recently fled from an abusive relationship, the elderly couple in the throes of a passionate new romance.

The people he highlights never fail to surprise me, but they’re all regular people.

You can use HONY is a couple of different ways to work on character development.

1) Write a Character Sketch

Choose a portrait. Any portrait but DON’T look at the comments. The easiest way to do this is to go to the Archives.

Write for five or ten minutes, by hand, without stopping. Write everything you can about that character. In the photo, study their appearance, where they are, what they’re wearing or doing, buy wellbutrin in the uk their facial expressions, any jewelry or tattoos, the body position. Anything.

Make up their back story. Where’d they come from? Who are they…really?

Then, when you’re done, read their story. How close are you to the “truth”? Which story do you like better? Does their story “fit” with the character sketch you wrote?

This is fun to do in a group because everyone finds interesting details that they tend to focus on, so if you have a writing buddy, try it together and then share and compare.

2) Sketch a Character

This strategy is the opposite. For this, try to only focus on the story, NOT the photo. If there is a series of photos and stories focusing on one person, the beginning of the post will have (2/3) meaning that this is the 2nd post out of three total on this individual. Many of these don’t show faces. There might only be one portrait out of the three. Or, there might be none.

Choose one of those. Read this person’s story and write a physical description of them. What do they look like? What are they wearing? How are they standing or sitting? Where are they? A park bench? A street corner?

If you’re an artist (and I know there are some of you out there), try getting out your pencils and actually drawing.

When you’re done, look at the physical picture that goes with the story. You might find you like your fictionalized description better than the “real” one, and that’s great.

This is all about playing and having fun creating characters.

Also, Brandon has also started documenting people from the Middle East. He did a whole series on the Syrian refugees as well as Pakistan. The stories are heartwarming and some might make you cry (I did), but it also makes you realize that people are people, pretty much the same regardless of where they live.

These are great exercises to do for warming up, creating a file of characters for future use, or even developing traits in an existing character.

Try one of them out or come up with your own strategy and let us know how it goes in the comments below.

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