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I recently had a great time speaking at the annual retreat in Writing Novels for Young People at VCFA, organized by Sarah Aronson and Cindy Faughnan. As part of my talk, I shared one of my favorite theater games that translates well to writing, the Essence Game.

I didn’t make it up and have no idea who did, but it’s basically a game of metaphors. One person leaves the room to act as the guesser, and everyone else chooses someone in the room to describe. When the guesser returns, she asks questions about the mystery person’s essence—such as, “if this person were an animal, what animal would she be?” “If he were a piece of furniture?” “A condiment?” 

My acting teacher in college gave our class assignments to write metaphors like these in our character journals. The characters in my debut novel, Don’t Touch, try it out on Hamlet and Ophelia. Peter asks Caddie:

“What’s Ophelia’s favorite ice cream flavor?”

“Did they have ice cream in Denmark back then?”

“Doesn’t matter. Hamlet’s taking Ophelia to the ice cream social. What does she order?”

“Um. How about lemon sorbet?

“Ooh, I like it. Simple, clean.”

“What about Hamlet?”

“I think Hamlet’s got to be a rocky road kind of guy.”

“So wait, is this supposed to be the kind of ice cream he would eat, or the kind of ice cream that he is?”

“It’s an essence thing,” he says. “Instinct.”

I suggest that you play a mini-version of this game with your characters. Come up with five highly modified metaphors. And these aren’t about association; they’re about essence.

What kind of weather is Harry Potter? You might be tempted to say lightning–I mean, there’s a lightning bolt on his face—but does Harry move through the world, interact with his friends, or approach his problems with the character of lightning? Not so much.

To me, Harry’s more like a sun ray cutting through clouds on a brisk and gloomy day. You might think of something wildly different, or you might think of multiple metaphors for different moments in a character’s story. That’s cool. This is just for you.

In acting class, our metaphors became the source material for physicality and vocal choices. When I chose a corkscrew as a metaphor for Marlene in Top Girls, that object’s shape, tension, and spiraling action fed into the way my Marlene sat at her desk, the way she held a pen, the way she pivoted on a single sharp high heel.

For writing, your metaphors might become objects in your characters’ rooms, a part of the setting that surrounds them in an important scene, or a part of the language you use to describe them. They might even inform whether you focus on soft or hard sounds or the rhythm with which your characters speak.

Try coming up with metaphors to fit these categories, and then see if you can incorporate one of them into a scene. What if your character were . . .

A type of weather

A piece of furniture

A type of cuisine

A color

An animal

A utensil

A TV show

A game

A profession

A piece of art

A landscape

A tree

Something you can purchase at a 7-11

A literary genre

A person you knew in college . . .

You never know which metaphor might unlock a door in your brain, so feel free to make up your own. And remember, it’s a game, so have fun playing!