16 Quick character exercises

16 Quick CharacterDevelopmentExercisesI(and many of the writers I follow) subscribe to the theory that character is the most important part of your novel. The most memorable part of a good book is almost always the characters, but it’s more than that. Your characters, their emotions, actions and reactions are the driving force behind the story, even in story with a highly external plot. It’s why our books so often change dramatically from the outline during the first or second draft–because we’ve gotten to know our characters and realized they wouldn’t act the way we originally imagined.

So how do you get to know your characters? There are almost as many different methods as there are writers. Hell, I’d go so far as to say there are as many ways to develop characters as there are characters in our fiction–I’ve developed almost all my main characters in very different ways. Sure, the starting exercises are the same, but there are a whole fleet of other exercises I’ve used to get to know my characters(and occasionally other people’s) over the years.

Today I’d like to give you the tools to develop your own characters. I’m pretty confident you already know what a good character looks like, so we’re going to jump straight into a collection of the best character exercises I’ve tried(some are linked to the articles where I found them, some no longer exist):

1. Describe your character in three words.

2. Write an internal monologue from the POV of your main character about their first big crush or first love.

3. Write one page or paragraph about your character’s worst memory, using their first person perspective.

4. Follow a supporting character after they leave the protagonist’s presence.

5. Interview your character about a specific part of their past.

6. Write a diary entry about your character having an ordinary day.

7. Write a letter from one supporting character to another.

8. Get your character to confess their most shameful secret.

9. Ask your character to describe their favourite place. 

10. Send your character(s) to Disney World and watch their reactions.

11. Get them to tell you about their education in one paragraph, then expand it to a page.

12. Write a description of your character from the POV of the person they’ve hurt the most.

13. Write one page describing your character’s family from their POV.

14. List what’s in your characters pockets/purse/briefcase/car on an ordinary day. 

15. Write a scene from a support character’s POV about them meeting your character for the first time. Pay close attention to how they describe your character at first glimpse.

16. Create a factsheet listing everything you’ve learned about your character so far.

All of these character exercises were chosen because they can be completed within an hour(usually less for many of the exercises) but I’ve often found that once I get my characters talking about something one paragraph or even one page is rarely enough. If you have the time to keep going, let your characters ramble–it’s in these moments that you often learn the most.

What is your favourite character development exercise? Let me know in the comments section below!

Using setting to develop character

http://pixabay.com/en/wallpaper-wood-bridge-background-19513/Any writer who’s been at this a while will tell you that in the best novels, setting, plot and character are intertwined. One cannot exist completely separate from the other, and they all influence each other to make a whole, interesting story.

This means that building upon one aspect of your novel often informs work you’re doing on other aspects. The history of your world, particularly the development of prejudice, impacts how your characters behave and are perceived. If one or more of your characters are in marginalized groups in the society you’ve created, they’re going to interact differently with other characters and be treated differently too.

Of course, how you can play with discrimination in fantasy settings and how that impacts characters’ lives is an article in its own right, maybe even a book.

What I’d really like to talk about today is something a little different: what you can learn about your characters by how they interpret setting. The details your character notices first–and how that changes based on their mood–can tell you a lot about your character: what they think about, how certain objects remind them of their past, how they feel about a certain place.

Today’s exercise is to write a scene where one of the major characters in your novel walks into a public space, twice.

The first time you write this scene, your character has just gotten some good news and is feeling great. What details do they notice? How are they walking? Do they often use large words to describe ordinary objects when a small word could work just as well? All these things say something about your character.

The second time you write this scene, your character’s had a really long day and is feeling down about their life and the direction it’s going in. Are the details they notice the same as the first time they walked into this room? Are they paying more attention to what’s going on in the room, or to how they feel? Does their mood change the language they use to describe things and people in the room?

When you’ve written both versions of the scene, compare the two and take notes on anything that leaps out of you: particularly poignant descriptions, a tendency to ignore their surroundings because they’re focused on themselves, a specific relationship with the place you chose to write about. Any small thing you notice about the character–or the setting, if you think it’s one you’ll use again–is worth noting.

What did you learn about your character today? Do you think it will help you write a better novel?

Ultimate Character Resource List

characterIf you’ve followed more than a couple blogs about writing fiction for a while, you’ve probably noticed that most writers will claim one of two things is the most important aspect of any novel: character or plot. And before you ask, I suspect the only author you’re likely to know of who thought worldbuilding truly was the most crucial aspect of story was Tolkien. (Feel free to mention others if you know about them. I don’t.)

You might be wondering what I have to say on the matter, and just to satisfy your curiosity I’ll give you the short answer: I think it depends on the writer and the story. Which is really my short answer for everything to do with writing a novel, because it’s hard to say anything more definite in a sentence.

Besides, I’m not here to argue semantics. We can do that in a couple months, when we’ve finished our crazy noveling adventures.

No, today I’m here to provide you with a comprehensive list of free resources that will help you create real, believable characters that people will grow to love—or hate. So bookmark this page and prepare to build the best characters you’ve ever built, one exercise at a time.

(For the record, this would have gone up last weekend except I accidentally smashed my laptop screen before I scheduled it and it took me a while to get the file back. Sorry guys!)

Resources on Character Development

1. Character Creation: 4 Simple Exercises – This is a short but incredibly useful article on Writer’s Digest if you’re just getting started with your character creation. The four writing exercises outlined in this article won’t take you too long, but they will greatly improve your understanding of your characters.

2. Take your Characters out to Lunch: 5 Development Exercises – The great thing about this article is that it has not just the five exercises it mentions, but links to a few different prompt sites where you can find writing exercises that will help you develop your characters further and get into the writing mood before you actually start your first draft.

3. 12 Character Writing Tips for Fiction Writers – This is an article with advice on many of the different aspects you need to create a solid character. It doesn’t go into much detail about any of them, but it’s a good place to start.

4. Characterisation in the Novel – Published by The Writer’s Workshop, this is a really comprehensive article about character development with a pretty intense exercise designed to help you nail down many of the fundamentals mentioned in the article above this one.

5. Developing Distinctive Character Voices – An article with three different exercises designed to help you develop distinctive voices for each of your characters.

6. The 100 Most Important Things You Need to Know About Your Character – This is a pretty massive list of questions designed to help you get to know your character. I’ve never worked my way through all of them for a single character, but combining question exercises with narrative exercises is often the best approach to character development, and one I’m quite fond of.

7. 50 Questions to Free Your Mind – The post kind of conveys them as questions you can ask yourself during a meditation or something, but these are some really interesting questions you can ask your characters if you want to make them really believable.

8. Top 10 Questions for Creating Believable Characters – If you don’t have a lot of time to spend planning your characters between now and when you’d like to start your first draft or you’d rather focus mostly on narrative exercises, these are the ten questions you really should ask your characters before you start your first draft.

9. Character Questionnaire – As you can probably tell, there are thousands of these questionnaires, each of them with their own good points and bad points. Often they’re a good jumping off point for writing exercises—you can use each one as a prompt for some flash fiction—but even answering all of these questions in point form is a great way to start building characters people will believe and understand.

10. The Art of Character Development – This is a pretty comprehensive cluster of articles designed to help writers and role players create excellent characters. It’s also got some more general information on role playing if you have any interest in that.

11. The First Rule of Creating Fictional Characters – A breakdown of eight different ways you can ensure that your readers will actually care about your characters. There’s some great advice here.

12. Character Interview Sample Questions – Just in case you haven’t asked your characters enough questions at this point—or you want to try a different list for each character so you can figure out which one you like best.

13. Create a Character Exercises – This article takes some time to remind you that reading is just as important to your success as writing is before delving into some exercises you can use to develop your own great characters.

14. Creating Memorable Characters – This is an excellent article on Writing-World.com which discusses how to make your characters more memorable. I read this article a few years ago and took its words to heart.

15. What Makes a Character Memorable? — Another article discussing how you can create memorable characters. After all, if there’s one thing that will be remembered about your book throughout the ages, it will probably be the characters.

16. Virginia Woolf’s Advice on Creating Memorable Characters – Whether or not you like Virginia Woolf—and people seem to be pretty divided on that matter, from what I can tell—she does have some great advice about how to create memorable characters.

17. Five Key Ways to Make Characters Memorable – Yet another great article on how you can make your characters more memorable.

18. The 3 Types of Character Arc : Change, Growth, and Fall – The best novels all feature dynamic characters whos lives are constantly changing, even if only in small, minute ways the reader barely notices. This article explains the three main types of character arc to help you create truly dynamic, vivid characters.

19. Character Arc 101 – This article goes over a lot of the basics needed to understand how character arcs work.

20. Creating a Stunning Character Arc, Part 1: Can You Structure Characters? — This is a long, pretty in depth article with links to an entire series of pretty long, in depth articles. Reading through all of these—and thoroughly digesting the information you find there—will help you go into your first draft with a clear idea of where your characters are going.

21. The Elements of a Novel: Character – You can find lots of useful information on different aspects of novel writing at this website, and this particular link is a pretty thorough article about character development.

22. Character Profile Template – This is a ready to download character profile template you can use to keep the most important information about each of your characters in one place.

23. Character Chart – This is another, more detailed approach to a character profile where you can keep pretty much any information you’ll ever need to know about your characters. You can download a copy to edit yourself.

24. Huge Character Profile of Completeness – If you want to try creating a truly comprehensive character profile as your main approach to character development—or just so all the information you’ve gathered while using the rest of these resources is in one place—this is the resource you need.

25. The Nanowrimo Adoption Society – Every year you’ll find a handy “Adopt a character” thread on this forum. Often you’ll even find different threads devoted to adopting characters from different genres. Even if you don’t take a specific character from this forum, the things you read are sure to inspire a character anyway.

26. Fantasy Character Generator – Just in case you’re starting completely from scratch, this generator will randomly produce character descriptions and hopefully inspire some great creations of your own.

27. The Secrets of Great Characters According to 6 Science Fiction Authors – An article with some thoughts from successful fiction authors so you can get an idea what the pros have to say on the subject.

28. How to Use Psychology in Fiction to Engage Readers – This is a great article about how psychology can be used to create amazing characters that will keep your readers coming back for more.

29. Psychology for Writers – This is a whole archive of articles about pyschology that are of particular interest to fiction writers. Need I say it’s exciting to explore? I haven’t gotten through them all yet, but I’m fascinated and eager to continue reading until I do.

30. Creating a Character Template – A guide to creating your own character template to use every time you start working with a new character.

31. Character Sketch — Kindly left in the comments for me, this is a great article by Matt Herron about how to create characters using Scrivener.

32. Developing Themes in Your Stories: Character Arcs — This is a post on one of my favourite blogs, DIY MFA, with a series of exercises to help you develop character arcs.

You can find thousands of articles and exercises designed to help you build your characters all over the web, but these are the ones I think you’ll find most useful. This list represents dozens of different approaches to creating believable, dynamic fictional characters, and I intend to add to it every year.

Is there a resource you’d really like to see added to this list? Let me know in the comments below or via email at diannalgunn @ gmail.com .

Developing your world by examining adulthood

fireworks-180553_640Every culture throughout history has had some sort of tradition that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. These traditions vary widely, ranging from wild parties to vision quests to marriage–which often involved a massive party anyway.

Now that pretty much everybody lives to adulthood and a great many people aren’t religious, the vast majority of us don’t celebrate adulthood with some ancient cultural tradition, but we do celebrate. Oh, and adulthood starts much later now than it did a couple hundred years ago, when fourteen year old girls were commonly married and fourteen year old boys were working.

Today’s challenge is to write a story about one of your main characters making the transition from childhood to adulthood. 

Pay particular attention to these things:

What age does adulthood begin at in this culture? Is it connected to a specific marker of puberty?

Does becoming an adult mean starting work right away?

Is there an actual celebration? If so, is it religious?

If there isn’t any major celebration or trial characters go through when they reach adulthood, why not?

How soon after adulthood begins is the character expected to marry? (I.E. Are people at the celebration asking them when they’re going to marry? Or is a marriage already arranged?)

Even if your characters aren’t going to be coming of age during the story, this exercise can tell you a lot about the culture you’re working in.There are all kinds of things you can infer from this information. A culture with a high infant mortality rate is more likely to have a massive celebration when children become adults. A culture where the main coming of age ritual is marriage will likely have extremely sexist laws.

You can do this exercise if you’re writing in our world, too. After all, we do celebrate adulthood, and if your character is of a different religious background than you, this exercise might be very informative–as long as you research to make sure you get the feel of the event right.

How do characters in your world celebrate coming of age? Did you enjoy this writing exercise?

Getting to know your characters through a character diary

beauty-354570_640There are at least as many different ways to create believable, interesting characters your readers can care about as there are good writers. In fact, after all the time I’ve spent running around looking for resources on character creation in the last couple of weeks, I suspect there might actually be more character creation and development exercises than there are writers–quality or otherwise.

One of my favourite ways to get intimately familiar with my characters is to create a character diary for them.

Here’s how it works:

Every day for a specified period of time–whether it’s a week, a month, or just until Nanowrimo starts–you write one page describing a normal day in your character’s life. This should be at some point shortly before your story begins, so you know you’re getting in touch with the character voice you’ll be using during Nanowrimo.

Pay special attention to how your character writes their journal. Is it simply a recording of the day’s events, or is the character trying to work through some kind of trauma? Do they just recite the facts, or do they embellish and go off on tangents?

How your character journals will tell you just as much about them as knowing what their daily routines are.

Have you ever written a character diary before? Why/why not?

Keeping Factsheets

Last year I wrote about creating a factsheet about your story, but this year I’d like you to take it to the next level. I’d like you to create factsheets—pages of point form notes—documenting everything you know about the following things:

Your world— what time period is your world set in? What are the places your characters live in called? Is there magic or high technology? Perhaps there’s no technology. How do they document time? What religions are common? Anything you know about your world should be put on one piece of paper you can easily refer to as you write your novel.

Every character— every character that has a significant part to play in your story should have a fact sheet with every piece of information you know about them. This will help you when you’re trying to remember what colour eyes your main character’s second cousin has, and is especially useful if you have a large cast or a first person narrator.

Every place— if your characters do a lot of travelling, you’ll probably want separate factsheets for every town/city/country they visit. Creating one for every inn is excessive, but if you’re working with large noble households, you might want one for each of them.

The story itself— what must happen? What are you heart set on including in your novel? This should be something you can base a solid outline on, and will be a place where you can note how your novel changes during the month, because believe me, it will.

Once you’ve created these factsheets, put them in a file that you can keep at your workspace. Every time you work on planning your novel you should be updating one of these sheets, and you should keep updating them throughout the writing process. Keeping notes of everything you know and everything you learn about your world, characters and setting will make editing much easier. Not only does it help you prevent continuity errors in the draft itself, but it allows you to incorporate major changes into a full rewrite without reading the entire first draft.

This is something I’ve only been doing for the last two years, and if I’d started keeping factsheets sooner I probably would’ve skipped three drafts of Moonshadow’s Guardian. So take the time today to create your factsheets and make a place for them in your writing space.

Diving into your character’s mind

Hopefully by now you have a fairly solid main character to work with if nothing else. You want to know that character as well as you possibly can before you start writing your actual novel.

This is particularly important if all you have is a character, because an entire novel can spring up naturally around a good character you know well. Their family, friends and lovers can become characters and their lives can become plots. You can either discover a period of their life worth writing about, or you can learn how they react to things and throw them an entirely new challenge that will test their strengths.

Every writer uses different techniques to get into their character’s minds. Some use character interviews, others create detailed character charts. Some even dress up as their characters and walk around like them for a day.

My favourite method of getting to know a character is to choose an important moment in the character’s life and write about it in their first person PoV. I usually end up writing my entire novel in first person, so this is particularly productive for me, but even if you’re going to spend November writing in third person it can be useful to see through their eyes for a couple scenes. Knowing how your character sees the world is incredibly useful and more importantly, knowing how they respond to trauma can help you write the most tense scenes in your plot.

By choosing the right moment, you can also learn about their family, friends, loved ones and even their culture as a whole. And as I mentioned last week, if you explore a good character deeply enough, you’ll always find a story worth telling.

If you don’t know much about your character or their culture and you’re having trouble choosing a moment, pick from this list of things most people will experience in their lifetime:

  • Becoming an adult
  • Someone’s funeral
  • Someone’s wedding
  • Leaving their hometown for the first time

Describe the day in as much detail as possible, focusing on how your character sees the world, how they feel and how they react to the world around them. If you’re comfortable sharing, tell me what moment in your character’s life you chose in the comments below.

Naming Characters

If you’re like me, your characters go one of two ways: they either come with a name, or you spend hours or sometimes days trying to find them names. A name is–usually–only one or two words, but sometimes it can be the hardest one or two words you’ll ever right. Names come with enormous pressure: you have to pick something pronounceable, something that’s culturally appropriate, and something that suits your character. Since I’ve struggled with this many times myself–and am currently trying to select a name for the main male character in my Nano 2012–today I decided to share some methods for finding names.

The first thing you should try is a basic mindmap. Put “names” in the center and brainstorm as many names that are phonetically similar to the name of your character’s locale/society as you can. For example, my Nanovel this year is centered around a secret society named the Valshaari who live within the Volthraki tribe. My main female character’s name is Valtessa, and some names I’ve considered for her male counterpart include Morthal, Korvak and Kaltek. These names all use harsh consonants. I did a similar brainstorm for Valtessa, and considered names like Malthi, Kaima and Torcha. These names are a little softer than the boy names, but still fit within the culture. I decided from these options that Valtessa best suited my character.

If you aren’t satisfied with any of the names you thought up during your brainstorm, there are plenty of other ways to find names. You could consult a baby name book or a website like behindthename.com, or try combining already familiar words together in ways that sound cool. I’ve known several writers who used either or both of these methods with great success, and I myself have grabbed many names from Behind the Name. The latter option allows for more creativity, but using a naming website or book gives you a name that already has connotations which you can use to help readers familiarize themselves with your characters.

What if you try all these methods and a random name generator besides and nothing works? Don’t be afraid to use a placeholder name until you can find out the proper name for your character. Sometimes it’s easier to build the character first through exercises and the story itself and to worry about names later–especially when you don’t have a lot of time, like this Nanowrimo season. Try writing a couple scenes from their PoV and see what happens. You might even want to have another character describe them. Eventually you should stumble upon a name you like.

This weekend, try to find proper names for as many of your characters as possible. Whether or not you do, stop by Monday and we’ll talk a bit about worldbuilding.

How do you create character names?

Robin Burks on Character Development

Today’s author is debut novelist Robin Burks, whose novel, Zeus, Inc. began as a Nanovel. I hope you’ll give her a warm welcome and enjoy her thoughts on character development.

* * * *

What makes a good character in a story?

Character development is something every writer has to think about. A good character is key in readers enjoying your work and a good character will keep readers coming back for more of what you write. But where to begin when creating a character?

I tend to look at my own personal characters from an actor’s perspective because of my background in theatre. I ask myself about their motivations and I put myself in their shoes and try to react to situations in a way that I would if I were them.

But there’s so much more to character development than just that. As an actor, the character is already formed by the writer. In writing, you have to create that character from scratch and then continue painting on its various personality quirks, moods and physical traits.

So where does that come from?

When I sat down to write Zeus, Inc., I had to ask myself that very question. Initially, my protagonist, Alex Grosjean, was a young woman, fresh out of high school. I wrote three chapters before I realized that I could not relate to her.

After several more attempts, I made Alex older, closer to my own age, and I started adding personality traits that were similar to my own. Perhaps this was cheating, in a way, but I made her an idealized version of myself. And once I started, I found the character easily enough. As I wrote, I put myself in her position and asked myself “What would I do if I were a private detective being hired by my best friend to find her dad?”
And from there, Zeus, Inc., was born.

But I also had to make Alex flawed because in real life, we are all flawed. And reading about someone who is perfect is also rather boring, right? So I had to come up with something in her background that made it difficult for her to take her friend’s case. Alex needed something personal that she had to overcome. I do not entirely remember where the missing girl case in Alex’s history as a police officer came from, but it gave her that much needed thing to overcome.

As an actor, motivation is key, but so also is conflict. And Alex was written with both in mind.

But Alex wasn’t the only character in Zeus, Inc. There were also a host of other characters. Again, I cheated by writing everything from Alex’ perspective (first person), so I wrote those characters as Alex (or myself) saw them. I ended up basing many of them on people I knew or television characters that I had come across. For example, Aleisha Brentwood is based on a relative of mine, someone that I hold very dear to my heart, as Alex did Aleisha.
But I will admit that the handsome and mysterious Pip was an idealized version of a television character I tend to have a major crush on.

The best thing that worked for me with Zeus, Inc., was to write what I know, and that’s exactly what I did. And it’s probably the best advice I could give to other writers. Take things from your own life, people you know or other characters you’ve seen and use that to create your own characters. Picasso famously said that great artists steal, and I believe that’s exactly what he meant. Let the things around you inspire your characters.

Robin Burks is not only a novelist, but also writes for RantGaming.com, Syfy Network’s DVICE.com and as well as her own blogs – FanGirlConfessions.com and Robin-Burks.com. Robin’s first novel, Zeus, Inc., is now available on Smashwords, BN.com, Amazon.com and in the iBookstore. She also occasionally speaks French and loves Doctor Who.

Character Creation

You might have already gotten a few ideas for characters during your brainstorming last week. Or you might be scrambling to figure out who might fit into the plot you’ve been trying to plan. Whether you’ve got a host of characters and are trying to figure out who will be your main character or you’re just starting to delve into character, there are a few simple questions you can ask yourself to create the best characters to match your story and your world.

But first, a warning. The best characters take on a life of your own, and will do unexpected things, occasionally drastically changing your plot. This can happen even in later drafts. If this starts happening–or you realize during this line of question that the person you thought to be your MC is actually just a sidekick–go with it. Don’t fight it; fighting the wish of the characters will only make your story fall flat.

Consider yourself warned. Now on to the questions!

1. Who has the most to lose in the scenario I’ve created and why? The reason you ask yourself this is to find your main character. The best main character is generally the one who has the strongest need and is willing to go the furthest to get it. Figure out who this is, and you’ve got your MC. If there are two characters with opposing but equally strong needs in relation to the story, you’ve got both your MC and your villain. See how easy that was?

2. What is this character’s prized possession? This is good to know because it adds depth. Sometimes you learn more than just what the object is when you ask this question. For example, my female MC Valtessa’s most prized possession is actually a hand-carved family of soapstone elephants given to her by her mother. By figuring that out I learned both that elephants do exist on her world–although nowhere near her–and that in spite of locking her up when she was a child, her guardians let her keep something to remind her of her mother. Often, even if you know nothing of your world yet except as it pertains to the story, you’ll learn more about it when you ask this question.

3. Has this character ever been in love before? This question will give you some background on the character. If they haven’t, find out why–maybe they’re from a religious order where love is a sin, or maybe they’ve never really been exposed to other people. Of course, they might just be incredibly cold and have difficulty with their emotions, both having and understanding them. If they have been in love, try to find out with whom, when, and what happened. You might discover there’s another character–a lover, lost or recent–waiting in the wings.

4. What does this character think of themselves? This is an important question. Everyone’s always telling you how important your self esteem is, so why wouldn’t your character’s be, too? You’ll probably figure out a lot more about this when you get into the world and figure out how they fit into society in terms of class, religion and gender roles. For now you’re just looking for a basic answer–do they like themselves or hate themselves? Perhaps they like their talents or their personality, but hate their body. Figure out how they feel about themselves, and you’ll have lots of fodder for introspection and an easy way to create a character arc.

These questions should help you figure out a little bit about the characters you’re creating and give you an idea who your main character should be this November. Over the course of this week we’ll discuss character arcs in more detail and go over a couple exercises designed to help you figure out more about your characters.

What questions do you like to ask your characters?