Thursday, December 06, 2012

Need to Get in the Head of Your Character? Try a Mask Poem!

YAY Images  
By Robyn Hood Black, @artsyletters

Have you ever heard from an editor or maybe a critique partner, “I didn’t emotionally connect with your character.” Ouch. (The ouch is from personal experience.)

How can you inhabit your character so that he/she comes across as REAL and someone your reader will care about? One approach you might try is writing a mask poem. Not with publishing in mind, perhaps (though you never know what brilliance you might come up with!), but as a way to get to know your character better.

A mask poem, also called a persona poem, requires that you get inside your character. As Myra Cohn Livingston (1926-1996) writes in her book of child-friendly essays and articles, POEM MAKING – Ways to Begin Writing Poetry (HarperCollins, 1991):

“…Poets never stop imagining what it might be like to be not only another person, but even something that cannot, in reality, think or speak.

This aspect of the dramatic voice is what I think of as a mask or persona. It is as though we put on the face or the body of someone or something else and tell about ourselves through our words.”
Do you remember playing pretend as a child? When the neighborhood girls and I got together to “play horses” in someone’s back yard (okay, I always insisted on being a mule), we did not sit still in a row and say, “So the Arabian will canter across the pasture. Then the quarterhorse will race past her….” No, we EMBODIED those imaginary horses and ran ourselves around for the entire afternoon. We became horses.

If you can tap into that childhood gift of pretending, you can write a mask poem–and probably better character descriptions. It’s not simply a matter of switching from third-person to first-person. That’s a great technique to experiment with as you write drafts, of course–to see how your story most wants to be told.

But to write a poem in the voice of someone (or something) else, you need to focus on the sensory experiences that character is feeling, choosing only the most important details to express in words. Let me give you a fun example. This poem also demonstrates that your ability to inhabit a character is available to you even during mundane moments in your day–waiting in a doctor’s office, perhaps, or standing in line at a store.

The delightful Amy Ludwig VanDerwater shared this mask poem on her terrific blog, The Poem Farm last week:


Like small orange birds
we watch you
watch us.

We peek between
plastic plants.
We open wide
for food flakes.

We wave our tails
inviting you
to join us
for a swim.

Copyright © Amy Ludwig VanDerwater. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.

Do you see how much more intimate it is to write from the perspective of the fish in the tank, rather than just writing about them? Amy has several more mask poems to enjoy on her website under the tab “Find a Poem by Technique”. Her site is chock-full of student- and teacher-friendly resources for reading, writing, and enjoying poetry.

Here’s a lighthearted example of a mask poem I wrote which appeared on another blog last month. Children’s author, foodie, and blogger extraordinaire Jama Rattigan held a celebration of Peanut Butter Month in November on her delightful Alphabet Soup blog, with many children’s poets chiming in. She also ran a poll to see which PB brand reigned supreme: Jif, Peter Pan, Skippy or Smuckers. I decided to write a poem from a peanut’s perspective, with a nod to most of those brands anyway.

Robyn Hood Black

I remember life underground
in that red Georgia clay –
rain seeping down, sun seeping in . . .

Til one day we were pulled up and out

left to dry, old enough to come out of our shells,
join the daily grind

skipping right into something smooth and sweet,
creamy and dreamy.

Just like that — in a jiffy! — I was
jamming with some strawberry jelly
slathered this way and that
between slices of Wonder

Mmmm, mmmm . . .

listening to promises of Neverland.

Copyright © Robyn Hood Black. All rights reserved.

(Here’s a link to the post . If you love peanut butter, scroll through the whole month!)

Why am I sharing a quirky poem about peanut butter on a blog about fiction writing? Because I learned something during the process of working out this poem in my head and on paper. Rather than objectively describe the process of peanuts being manufactured into peanut butter, I “became” a peanut, and something new entered the picture: voice. I literally heard this smooth, jazzy, sultry-ish female voice in my head – much lovelier than my own voice, mind you – as I drafted this poem. I still hear it when I read it, too.

I plan to revisit one of my works-in-progress whose character needs some more emotional punch. I’ll write a mask poem as if I AM her, focusing on the sights, smells, sounds and other sensations she’s feeling as well as on the details of her immediate environment. I bet after that process, her voice will be richer.

Maybe you have a character you’ve done a fine job describing, but whose eyes you haven’t really looked through. Try a mask poem!

Robyn Hood Black writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction for young readers from the foothills of north Georgia. Her books include SIR MIKE (Scholastic Library, 2005), and WOLVES (Intervisual Books, 2008). Her poems appear in THE ARROW FINDS ITS MARK (Roaring Brook, 2012) and THE POETRY FRIDAY ANTHOLOGY (2012). Her haiku have been published in leading haiku journals. She’s also just launched an art business with “art for your literary side” at


  1. Now I want some peanuts :)

  2. The idea of a mask poem fires my imagination. I can't wait to try this--both with images I photograph and with characters in my WIP. Thanks for the inspiration.

  3. sjp - Ha! Well, they're good for you.

    Tricia - So glad you like the idea! And how cool that you might try with images as well as written characters.

  4. I've done this and it always helps me to get into character. But I never knew there was a name for it!

  5. I've been dipping my toe back into third person lately and feeling a little more distant from my characters as a result, so this advice comes at a great time. Plus, it sounds like fun. :)

  6. This sounds like a great idea. I'll give it a try. Hmmm, peanuts. :)

  7. Carol - take your pick - "mask" sounds more fun, or "persona" if you're feeling a bit more formal.

    Hi, Chicory - I think that's the issue with my story I mentioned. If it stays third person, I need to do something to make that less distant. (Like write a mask poem!) Thanks for your comments.

    CS - Thanks! I hope you find it fun and helpful.

  8. I did this once for a YA novel that's been an off and on (Currently ON) project the last few years.

    I was shocked when those I showed it to really "got" the tone of my antagonist from a such a short poem, and brevity is NOT a native strength of mine.

    I need to do it more since it seems to help, at least a little bit.

  9. what an intresting article.

  10. I LOVE this!!! I love how you've shown that writing and the imaginative process can be a fusion of poetry and acting. Thank you for posting this!