When you think of unforgettable characters from books you’ve read, who comes to mind?
For me, I might think of Bilbo Baggins heading off on an adventure in Middle Earth or Ebenezer Scrooge being whisked away by the Christmas spirits or Jane Eyre trying to forge her own path in Victorian England.
What makes characters like these so unforgettable? What makes them feel as if they were real people rather than just creations of the author?
These characters come to life because they have complex personalities. They’re not stereotypes. Each one has dreams and desires, flaws and foibles. This makes them compelling and relatable to readers who come to those books even hundreds of years after they’ve been published.
Ernest Hemingway once observed,
When writing a novel, a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.
In today’s blog post, I’m sharing five character development writing exercises that will help you create living people for your stories. These exercises will guide you to examine your characters on a deeper level so you write memorable characters and thought-provoking stories that delight your readers.
(Please note that links to the books are affiliate links which means I’ll earn a small commission if you buy through the link with no extra cost to you. Thank you!)
1. The Proust Questionnaire
In Victorian times, there was a popular parlor game that centered on a book called a confession album. The confession album was filled with questions for friends to answer, similar to the questionnaires your friends might tag you in on social media.
Questionnaires have continued to be so popular because they give us a deeper understanding of our friends and of ourselves as well.
And that’s why they are a fantastic way to get to know your characters too.
One of the most famous questionnaires is called “The Proust Questionnaire”. It’s taken from a confession album filled out by French novelist Marcel Proust.
While Proust answered the questions about himself, you can use them to dive deeper into your character’s psyche and life story:
What is your idea of perfect happiness? What is your greatest fear? What is your greatest regret?
Pretend you’re interviewing your character and have them answer the questions in their unique voice.
2. The “Character Hinterlands” Exercise
Using worksheets like Proust’s Questionnaire will help you discover your character’s truest self, but you probably have more than one character in your story.
In order to have your characters interact as real human beings, you have to understand how their personality changes when they come into contact with other characters. For example, they might be open and loving with their family, but timid and reserved around their work colleagues.
Novelist Alison Acheson observes,
It is a rare story that has a character utterly isolated. We do not exist in a vacuum; we live in a world inhabited by others. Others influence us. Consider how you can be in a room, in the midst of a party, and behave a shade differently — or even more than a mere shade — with each of those people at the party. Have you ever met someone, begun to get to know them, and found yourself saying things that surprise you? Think about the subtle differences that show up in your own personality as you spend time with one person and then with another. Or in a changing situation or different place: consider ‘vacation you’ versus ‘workplace you.’
Acheson developed a helpful exercise (she calls it “character hinterlands”) that allows you to explore the interactions between all of the characters in your story.
For an interactive way to explore what your character is all about, take a large sheet of paper and write the main character’s name in the middle of it. Place the other characters’ names around, leaving a lot of white space between them. Rather than writing out notes about each individual, use the space between their names to explore what is developing between them. What is their history together? How is that history working on them? What is it they appreciate or loathe about each other? What are their expectations of each other? How do they view the other? Where are they at right now? And where might they end up?
3. Damon Knight’s “Five-Part Character Development” Exercise
In Creating Short Fiction, Damon Knight, an award-winning science fiction author, shared clear, no-nonsense storytelling advice on everything from structure to pacing to how to get ideas. He also shared a five-part exercise that will help you flesh out your characters.
The first part of the exercise asks you to get all of your character’s biographical details down onto paper (this is very helpful to do during your plotting stage so you don’t have to invent these details on the fly when you’re writing your story):
Write a brief biographical sketch of each one — date and place of birth, parents, education, work history, and so on. This sketch, like any other creative writing, should be done in collaboration with your unconscious. If you simply invent details at random, you will probably wind up feeling that you really don’t know this character and don’t want to write about her.
The second part is an excellent addition to the character hinterlands exercise:
Write a description of the character as seen by another character in the story. If there are a number of characters in the story, you may find it useful and illuminating to write at least two descriptions of each character, as seen by different people. This exercise will sharpen your own understanding of your characters, by forcing you to see each one from at least two sides. It will also help you form the habit of thinking of every character as a real, living person, not a piece of stage furniture.
The third part encourages you to put all of your character research into action by writing a scene:
Write a scene in which the character comes home and does whatever she routinely does at that time of day. What does she do first — light a cigarette? Water the plants? Feed the parrot? Or what?
The fourth part continues to dig into the character’s psyche:
Write an incident in the character’s life which you will not use in the story, but which reveals something about her.
The fifth and final part forces you to evaluate whether your character is a stereotype:
Invent a second character who is like the first in a general way — another restless teenager, or whatever — and write a scene between the two (again, something you will not use in the story). The scene must show the differences between the two characters in their attitudes, the way they talk, etc. If they sound so much alike that you can’t tell the difference except for their names, write it over — and over, until you can tell the difference. If you are having trouble with this, it is a clue that your first character is a stereotype. (Maybe your second character will come to life before the first one does; if so, give her the job.)
Knight shares many more fantastic exercises in his book. Check it out here.
4. The “Dinner Table” Exercise
This is an exercise I found while reading Robert Mckee’s book Story.
McKee’s screenwriting workshops have earned him an international reputation, and in Story, he lays out everything that you need to know to write powerful stories. It’s an in-depth and fascinating read for anyone who wants to learn more about story structure.
The “dinner table exercise” appears in a section on cast design. Imagine if all of your characters were sitting around a dinner table and something happened out of the ordinary. How would each of your characters respond?
McKee says that you shouldn’t have any characters that react in the exact same way. He explains,
If two characters in your cast share the same attitude and react in kind to whatever occurs, you must either collapse the two into one, or expel one from the story. When characters react the same, you minimize opportunities for conflict. Instead, the writer’s strategy must be to maximize these opportunities.
This is an excellent exercise to make sure that all of your characters have unique personalities.
I dive deeper into the “dinner table exercise” and explain how to use it effectively in my video below.
5. The “Character’s Room” Exercise
I recently enjoyed reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s book Steering the Craft. It deals with the nuts and bolts of the craft of writing and the subtle stylistic choices that will help you take your writing to the next level. Each chapter ends with several writing exercises so you can put into practice what you learned.
One of these exercises is excellent for character development:
Describe a character by describing any place inhabited or frequented by that character — a room, house, garden, office, studio, bed, whatever. (The character isn’t present at the time.)
What I love about this exercise is that these descriptive scenes are powerful to include in your story. They communicate to your reader the personality of your character without explicitly telling them your character is, say, wealthy or poor or artistic.
I’m currently reading Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens, and I came across this wonderfully gloomy passage where he conveys the personality of two characters by describing their house:
A dim, dirty, smoky, tumble-down, rotten old house it was, as anybody would desire to see; but there the firm of Anthony Chuzzlewit and Son transacted all their business and their pleasure too, such as it was; for neither the young man nor the old had any other residence, or any care or thought beyond its narrow limits…Business, as may be readily supposed, was the main thing in this establishment…Thus in the miserable bedrooms there were files of moth-eaten letters hanging up against the walls…while the meagre bedsteads, washing-stands, and scraps of carpet, were huddled away into corners as objects of secondary consideration, not to be thought of but as disagreeable necessities, furnishing no profit, and intruding on the one affair of life. The single sitting-room was on the same principle, a chaos of boxes and old papers, and had more counting-house stools in it than chairs; not to mention a great monster of a desk straddling over the middle of the floor, and an iron safe sunk into the wall above the fireplace.
Did you guess Anthony Chuzzlewit and his son were misers?
Ray Bradbury once wrote,
Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.
When you create well-rounded characters, your stories become more complex too. Characters will seem to have minds of their own, reacting to situations in ways you hadn’t at first intended.
With these five exercises, you’ll take your character development skills to the next level, writing captivating stories that readers will fall in love with.
Thanks for reading! I hope this blog post inspires you. Which is your favorite exercise? Let me know in the comments.
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