In this exercise, you’re going to spend an hour or two food shopping with your villain, gathering the ingredients for an ordinary meal. This is one of my favorite ways to get to know your villain. The idea is that, when we go shopping with someone in a grocery store, we find out about each other’s prejudices and biases, particularly in regards to money. And don’t worry if your villain is, say, a vampire or a shark and doesn’t eat ordinary meals. You’ll still get some big insights.
So, get to a quiet place, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and imagine yourself somewhere beautiful. Then, when you’re ready, set a timer for five minutes and take a pad and a pencil or pen—always do exercises like this by hand—and, writing as if you are your villain, describe what it’s like to go shopping with you. Don’t hold back. Just let your creative juices flow.
When I do this exercise, I always find myself shopping for canned tuna fish. One of the things I learned when I married my first husband was that supermarkets put the high-priced tuna on the top shelf and the low-priced tuna on the bottom. This is because they want you to see the high-priced tuna first and, hopefully, buy it.
I come from a very typical, middle-class New York experience, so I was brought up with solid white tuna, the expensive stuff by Bumble Bee. My first husband, on the other hand, was English and grew up in extreme poverty. He was used to buying the very, very cheapest stuff, the stuff that would be hidden away on the bottom shelf. I remember standing in the supermarket having a huge argument with him—and, boy, did I learn a lot!
Ever since then, when I’m working on something new, I take my villain shopping to make tuna salad. By the time we’re done fighting about the tuna, what kind of mayonnaise to buy, whether or not it takes celery, pickles, or onions, and whether or not it’s going to go on whole wheat or white bread, I know my villain really well. I may be emotionally exhausted, but it’s a fun exercise, and I recommend that you try it and then repeat it with your other characters as well.
I also recommend sending your villain on a shopping trip with your hero. That can be fantastically interesting and might even yield some dialogue for your script!
So enjoy, and in case it ever comes up, I don’t like pickles in my tuna salad.
Here’s to your successful writing!
Professor Marilyn Horowitz