Character. Without it, your story is meaningless. Your reader needs something to care about, SOMEONE, to root for, empathize with, and emotionally invest in.
Two of my current fiction projects are demanding that my attention be focused on character, which got me thinking about how to better understand who my characters really are. How do you get to know someone you created in your imagination? There are plenty of activities and workbooks out there. And some of them are really great. Here are two I strongly recommend.
The Proust Questionnaire started out as a parlor game in France as a way for a host to better get to know his or her party guests. You can find the list of questions here. It’s a great place to start when trying to figure out who your character is at the core.
Crafting Incredible Characters Workbook
Written by one of my favorite writing gurus, Kristen Kieffer, Crafting Incredible Characters, a digital workbook will walk you through the character creation process one step at a time. Beautifully designed pages and expertly curated questions make working on this aspect of your story a true joy. (Just be careful that you don’t have so much fun with the workbook that you use it as your excuse not to ACTUALLY WRITE your story. Take it from a guilty party… this workbook is so good that it’s easy to fall into that trap!) (Side note: the recommended price for this amazing resource is only $9.00, but if that is a financial stretch for you, Kristen has a generous pay-what-you-can business philosophy.)
But I’d already done those. I needed something different. I needed to stretch my brain and take it to new places.
So, I dug into my teaching materials and head and came up with the character creation activities below. Go ahead and try one, or all of them. Let me know what you come up with! What did you discover about your character? Did anything surprise you? What new quirk, talent, or flaw did you learn about the star of your story? Comment below or send me an email. I’d love to meet to the person of your brain’s creation.
25 Things You Don’t Know About Me
My sister religiously reads US Weekly. For years she got the subscription to it as a Christmas gift. Kind and generous sister that she is, Kate would often gift me her magazines once she was done with them. I didn’t mind being a week or ten behind on the celebrity gossip… I mostly just enjoyed looking at the fancy dresses. Inside the magazine there is a feature called: 25 Things You Don’t Know About Me. Each week they ask a celebrity to share several little-known facts about themselves. Try this with your own character. What little idiosyncrasies or preferences does your character secretly harbor? How can you bring those unique individual characteristics to the surface to make them memorable for your reader?
If you find yourself stuck, do a google image search for “US Weekly 25 Things You Don’t Know About Me” and dozens of images like the one above will pop up. Use them for inspiration. Tim Gunn, mentor on Project Runway confessed in his edition that “few foods make me happier than French fries” and he had a terrible stutter as a child and teen. These two facts add layers of depth to a persona that to the world seems a polished and poised gentleman. Picturing Tim sitting in some diner eating French fries (probably with a fork) while listening to a diction podcast via Marc Jacobs earbuds is downright delicious. What character facts can you unearth and how can you use them?
Thought-Shots are a great way to get into your characters head. The activity described below will help you add additional insight and character motivation to your story. Confused or want to see an example of this trick in action? Watch these video clips of the opening scenes in the movies The Hobbit and How to Train Your Dragon. Through the character’s thoughts we are treated to behind the scenes information, motivation and personal levels of understanding.
Last week I was driving and saw a bumper sticker that said, “If you are what you eat, then I am fast, cheap and easy.” I immediately thought, Nailed it, that’s totally me. (For real, my diet is made up of Cherry Pop Tarts, Diet Pepsi and Mac n’ Cheese… I kid you not.) This small declaration on the back of a beat-up car spoke to me, defined me, and showcased a specific character trait all in 36 square inches.
I thought it would be fun to do the same for a character. You can make up your own bumper sticker slogan for them, or if you are struggling to come up with a witty phrase, use the internet. (Warning: several results during this search bring up offensive language and content. Thicken your skin and scroll fast! Pinterest had more friendly search results.)
Make Your Character Uncomfortable
If you want to put your character into an interesting situation, try the activity below. Making our characters uncomfortable is one way to see how they will act. Do they crumble when outside their ordinary bubble? Or do they rise to the occasion? Are they feisty, passive aggressive or confident? Put them in hot water and find out.
Name That Tune
I’ve spent a lot of time in the car this summer driving to a variety of writing and family events. While in the middle of no-where Midwest I was struggling to find a radio station that matched my particular musical preferences. I wound up scanning through the 5 options (NPR, orchestral compilations, classic rock, old time country and religious talk radio) again and again and again. As I drove and thought and scanned I wondered who would actually enjoy listening to each of these stations. I mean, somebody must… they don’t produce them for no one! Mini character profiles sprung to mind for each station. Why not reverse engineer this process with the activity below? Use music to uncover hidden personality traits and style of your character.
And finally, once you’ve completed a few of these, organize your thoughts into the chart below. Keep it handy so you can continually influence your story with characterization… instead of forgetting about it after you write chapter 1.
You can use this chart two ways. I initially created it because I was struggling to decide on the kind of character I wanted to lead my new series. Boy or girl? Caucasian or a person of color? Sassy or witty? Outgoing adventurist or tech geek introvert? I used this chart to create three distinct characters, complete with strengths and struggles, clothing preferences and backpack belongings. I’m not certain I’ve made any solid decisions yet, but this certainly helped me on my way.
The second way you can use it, is to record the character traits of several different characters in your story. This way you can remember who is a vegetarian and who won’t leave home without their bird watching bible.
To get your free editable copy of this chart, click this link. Then go to file, make a copy. Once the new doc opens up, you can edit and save as you wish! Struggling? Just send me and email and I'll walk you through it!
Alright, that’s it for this week’s Writing Wednesday! I hope found these activities helpful and that your brain is boiling with all sorts of new possibilities. Feel free to pass on this link to another writer you think might find it helpful, or better yet, do as my writing group did last week, and complete the activities with a friend. When you are finished, share all the good stuff you write with each other and give feedback on which traits most resonate. Good luck with your character creation and happy writing!