Friday, October 7th, 2011

Writing Prompt – Building Character

I couldn’t decide whether to quote Hemingway or Twain, when it comes to discussing characters.

“A writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.”
~Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway gets right to the heart of it, but Twain’s irreverence takes it a step further: echoing Hemingway’s thoughts, but noting also that it’s what authors do with those characters that makes us want to keep on reading.

“The test of any good fiction is that you should care something for the characters; the good to succeed, the bad to fail. The trouble with most fiction is that you want them all to land in hell, together, as quickly as possible.”
~Mark Twain

Twain’s right: We want to see those characters bound in figurative chains, writhing in agony, in whatever cesspit of a situation that will make them the angriest, or saddest, or vengeful. That makes good reading.

Characters are more than their eye color, how they dress, and their physique. So, to write a great story, we’ve got to get into the psyche of the character, know his loves and hates, what makes him tick and how he’ll react, and then expose him to the very flames which will make him twist.

When you know your character well, you’ll find story and plot ideas will leap out of the knowledge, begging to be written.

Here’s Your Prompt:

Build a character by identifying traits, phrases and situations which can be mixed and matched. Divide a piece of paper into thirds and write “Adjective” at the top of the first column, “Person or Profession” at the top of the second, and “Phrase or Situation” at the top of the third.

My example:

Adjective Person/Profession Phrase/Situation
lonely middle-aged woman “Deuces wild, jacks or better to open.”
deviant seer missed the bus
belligerent teenager broken down on the side of the road
venomous wizard lost in Detroit City

The tendency is to write across the page, filling out the row…but I urge you to fill in the columns instead. It’s too easy (see my belligerent teenager? My lonely middle-aged woman?) to come up with ‘cardboard’ characters while filling in the blanks.

While you’re at it, choose some interesting adjectives and situations. Challenge yourself to find words and labels beyond the ordinary.

Do you write in a particular genre? Then choose appropriate words and situations. If you write fantasy, stay away from the mundane. Include wizards and gremlins and dragons on the page. Sci-fi? Add some interplanetary locales or some phrases based on future tech. Victorian romance? You get the idea…

Write to the bottom of the page, more if you can. Do the same, even if you’re typing. The more options you have the better.

Once you’re done, choose an item from each column and meet your new character. Try unusual pairings to see what you can come up with. At no time can you use any two (or three!) items from the same line.

Write a few sentences about your new character. Why is the middle-aged woman venomous? How did a teenager from (fill in the blank) get lost in Detroit City? Decide how your character got to be this way: give him or her a little back story. Judging from that, what are your characters likes and dislikes?

Next week: we’ll find some awful situations to put your characters in!

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