10 Character Exercises
Sometimes, it’s super hard getting inside character’s heads. As writers, it’s our jobs. We’re often playing at least two or three characters at once. Yes, that’s right, I did say, ‘playing’. I don’t know how many other storytellers out there would agree with me, but as someone who grew up taking acting classes, I can honestly say that the best writing feels like acting… without the actors. Having to bounce between two to three, three to five, or five to several more characters at a time is a feat that, no matter how long you’ve been practicing the craft, struggle with. It’s why knowing your characters better than you know yourself will show in the writing.
It’s why doing things, such as exercises where you draw out the personality of your character, truly thinking about their voice and thoughts… trying to become them rather than just write them… fully allows you to do what you want to do best: tell stories.
With any art — everything from culinary art to music to what we’re doing here —, there’s a tale to be told. Each and every art, as well as each and every artist, has their own tales to tell. Artists don’t have one, two, or three. We have several, maybe even hundreds, that we want to put on a plate, or a blank word document… a writer’s canvas.
In this article, we will be exploring some ways in which you can exercise your mind to fully flesh out the character you’re creating. There are ten writing workouts to try in all. Much like the character sketch, the suggestions below can be great tools to prepare for your novel, novella, or even the shortest of all short stories: flash fiction. As long as you have a character who needs to be fleshed out, I bet you’ll find use for these.
They each have an explanation or paragraph attached to them stating why and how they’ll be useful.
1. Write a paragraph of about a hundred words of the character describing themselves.
The best way to do this is by writing the paragraph as dialogue. Not only does this work so that it doesn’t interfere with number 2, but it also works because, if you write it as dialogue, you’ll have a sneak peek as to how they speak. It will also allow you to understand who they think they are, and perhaps how they got that way.
Are they insecure? Are they a narcissist? Or, does their self-esteem lie somewhere in-between those two points? What is the most important to them? How do they discuss who they are and how these importances relate to that?
2. Write a 250-character, mock social media bio for them.
If the character lives in today’s day and age, it wouldn’t be far off that they’d have at least one social media account. To bring your brain’s creation to life, try making a 250 character bio, including things like emojis and imaginary links to their website, if they would have one. Not only will it help you understand what this person wants others to see in them, but it will also help develop their voice, and every character’s voice is different from every other characters -- just like a real human.
3. Keep a journal written by your character
in your character’s own voice, and perhaps
in their handwriting.
One of the more extreme ways of getting into your character’s head, and getting used to their voice so it’ll be super simple to write in, is to keep a journal from them.
Choose your dates, how your character would discuss certain events in the story, learn their handwriting, learn how your character relates to these events, and why they’re the most important for them to talk about. Remember: they could be the type of character who’s an optimist, a pessimist, or somewhere in-between in their entries. How they decide to treat their journal entries could directly impact the story and the people around them. For instance, what if they’re pessimistic in their writing, but are feigning optimism to those around them? That could lead to a huge plot point, such as a mental breakdown later in the novel.
Not to mention, creating something like this for your character could potentially help you decide what scenes to either create or trash when you’re in the editing stages. If your protagonist or antagonist believes it to be key, then it should be in the novel. If it doesn’t make it into the journal because that character just doesn’t care about it, does it really have to be there? Trust your protagonist or your antagonist. Trust your characters. This is, after all, their story — not yours.
4. Write letters in between your two main characters.
Or, write letters between your character and their antagonist.
This is almost exactly like number 6, but it’s more archaic than a text message. Many people don’t writer letters anymore, and if they do, it’s in the form of a pre-made card from some giant department store. A lot can be said about a person if they create their own cards, write their own messages, and create their own envelopes rather than stopping at a place and picking up something that isn’t as personalized.
As you can imagine, that can say a lot about a character, how modernized their world is, and how modernized they want their world to be. Sometimes writing letters, especially if your story takes place in this day and age, is the most revealing thing. Revel in how much this can show you about their world. Not to mention the character work that goes into writing letters, such as how they relate to the person they’re writing the letter to. What do they decide to share? Do they doodle in the margins? Tidbits like that can shape so much of someone’s personality.
5. Write a news article based around a tragic event or good event that occurs in your story.
This exercise works best if your protagonist, antagonist, or both are newspaper or magazine journalists. It’s important to know how people who are supposed to be successful or unsuccessful, write and create. If the you, the author, don’t know their style of writing and why they do what they do, creating a news article around events in your story, written by a character, will allow you to get into their heads. It’ll help you to understand the media surrounding them.
If your protagonist or antagonist is not a journalist, writing articles about an event or person still helps, and does so because the more you create your world around these characters — any characters you’re writing — the more you’ll help us, your audience, to believe in what you’re telling. Like every storyteller knows, suspending your audience’s disbelief is one of the hardest, most difficult, and yet rewarding parts of telling any story.
6. Send text messages back and forth between yourself and your character…
… or, send text messages back and forth between two characters, because, after all, you’ll have to pretend you’re both.
If you’re character is a human in this day and age, cell phones and texting are both something lives are filled with. With all of our smart phone magic and lack of phone calls between people, it’s only fitting that we teach ourselves how to write texts between our characters. For instance, would your protagonist speak with emojis or use old-fashioned emoticons? Or, do they abbreviate everything? Do they spell out each word? All of this will help any reader to understand more fully who each character is.
It might also help you to understand what their voice sounds like. Such as, do they spell out every word because they’re a literary scholar and believe texting makes people less literate, yet they have to send them as a necessary evil?
Little pieces like that can make a story feel so much fuller an filled with so much more life, and that’s what we want… lively stories.
7. Take a Myers-Briggs psychology test from the point of view of your character and print out the results.
Personality quizzes, taken from the point of view of your character, will tell you a lot about their personality — and that’s an understatement. Something like a Myers-Briggs test, which is supposed to give an entire profile about what a person is like and who they are, is a tool that writers should tap into. Most importantly, what if your character relates to certain answers that don’t describe who they are? That would give them a false profile…
… but why would that be important?
Well, think about it. The character is someone different than others think of them. Many personality quizzes gauge a human being’s ideals and who they believe they are, rather than outsiders gauging who they think this human is. This means that with a personality quiz, such as a Myers-Briggs test, that they could get a false profile based on answers the person gave that don’t quite apply to them.
This is one of the most vital tools because it allows you, the writer, to know what the character thinks of themselves versus what others think of them.
8. Play a game of ‘This or That’ or ‘Would You Rather’ with your character.
There are tons of these types of questions that you can find in numerous places online. What I’ve found works the best is for them to pick one or the other, and when they do, for the character to answer the why in their own words. Give them about a paragraph for each ‘This or That’ or ‘Would You Rather’ question. These are also known as ‘Either/Or’ in many countries other than my own.
Allowing them to explain either their preference for each one will give you a ton of insight into the person you are writing. Whether your character likes one or the other is completely up to them. They can dislike or hate both, choosing the less of the two evils. Or, they could like or love both, choosing whichever they love more.
If you write it in their own words, it’ll feel like a miniature mock-interview with them. The more mock-interviews you do with them — especially the more you allow them to answer in their own words —, the more you’ll understand their voice, their choices, and perhaps even be able to work their vices and choices into the story itself.
9. Play a modified game of 21 Questions with your character.
Choose either three categories, each with seven questions, to ask about… or, choose seven categories, each with three questions, to ask about. Let your character lead you through the answers. There is no erasing. There is no deleting. It’s just you, your character, and their answers to whatever twenty-one questions you wish to ask them. Allow them to reply with their own words, as if the two of you really are in an interview — and you’re the one asking questions.
Decide what the twenty-one things you’ll be asking will be before you sit down with a notebook to write down what they tell you or with your laptop to type up what they tell you. Try as hard as you can not to lead them. They’re people, too, and they have their own answers, their own drives, their own things they believe to be important. If you lead them, rather than them leading you, they’ll become who you want them to be rather than who they want to be. When that happens, it removes their flaws. Or, if they’re the antagonist, it removes any redeeming qualities they might have. That’s no good.
10. If you can draw, draw what your character looks like.
No one knows what your character looks like better than you. There are tons of questions to think about when sketching, not just the basics like clothing and hair color. Many of these questions you can answer with words rather than a physical picture, but sketching it out could also help bond you more to your character. Nevertheless, if you’re interested in all of the other questions that may lead up to this or may sprout from something like ‘appearance’.
Now that you’ve read all ten of these exercises, I hope you find at least one of two of them useful. The best thing you could ever do for your characters is try to grow the world around them, and in turn, grow them as human beings rather than mere fiction. It always helps these people feel more real. You want to suspend the disbelief of your readers and have your readers hate to love, love to hate, and love to love each and every one of your three-dimensional beings.
March 30, 2020