I’m always looking out for unorthodox writing exercises, and one I struck upon recently has become a bit of an obsession, though something of a guilty one.
Arrests.org is a site that publishes every mugshot released by police in the US. It’s a very strange place, splitting mugshots into categories like ‘hotties’, ‘winos’ and ‘tatted up’. The whole thing stinks of the attitudes that underlaid falacies like phrenology: the returning idea of a ‘criminal class’, now divided into easy-to-navigate categories.
Here, comments sections have the atmosphere of a public pillory.
The website makes revenue from advertising, but also links to several services that charge to remove your mugshot from public documents, which is apparently not extortion.
This is a shady site, no matter its pretensions to being some kind of instrument of transparent government.
That being said, this is humanity. These are humans, and for a writer, this is an invaluable source of material for character creation.
So this is how a reprehensible website could help you become a better writer.
Skim through the names, not looking too hard at the photos. There are some great names on this site. Ratavious Biddle. Nikita Motley. Santos Ajucum. Gloribeth Santiago.
This is gold.
Pick a name that grabs you, and then click the photo. Open a notebook, or MS word, or open office or whatever, and then write 100-150 words or so describing this person.
It’s not your job to paint them as a villain, to judge them in your description (and some of these people have done horrendous things). Just paint them with words.
The most effective of these descriptions are the ones that use broad brush strokes, conjuring whole aspects of someone with very few words.
Consider Maya Angelou’s autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and her description of Ms. Flowers:
‘Her skin was a rich black that would have peeled like a plum if snagged, but then no one would have thought of getting close enough to Mrs. Flowers to ruffle her dress’.
Or The Finn in William Gibson’s Neuromancer:
‘The man who stood blinking now in the doorway behind them, the blanket draping one shoulder like a cape, seemed to have been designed in a wind tunnel.’
This is good stuff. Write one mugshot every day. Practice.
Often in a novel or a short story a character needs to be introduced without a long description that will slow down the pace of the narrative, and leave the reader feeling over-proscribed.
One of the best things about fiction is how every person sees a different face in their mental placeholder for a character. There are as many Mr Darcys or Captain Ahabs as there are readers of Austen and Melville, which is why film versions often constitute such a tragedy. Don’t work too hard to make the reader see what you see. That’s called bullying, and nobody likes it.
Anyway, here’s one of my early attempts to get you started. Guess which category he was in…
Johnathon Marth‘s hair is an anaemic strawberry yellow, close-shaved to his head. His eyebrows are the same colour, and against his pale skin seem non-existent; shadows, like the empty space on a wall where eyebrows had hung for years. Three clefts have been shaved into the right side of his hair, above the ear. Tattooed on the flat plates of his cheek bones, one on either side of his nose, are the words ‘stay true’ in looping cursive, faded to the blue-grey of old jeans. His parents, when they signed his birth certificate, had never seen the name ‘Jonathan’ written down. He always has to spell his name out to bank tellers, to car salesmen, to police.
Have a go and post your own if you like.
Read more writing tips: Finding your beginning – an unpopular method