(three sets of prompts)
To begin developing a character, answer these questions.
- What does the character look like? Describe him or her.
- Where was the character born? What was his or her upbringing like?
- What do the character’s parents or guardians do for a living? What is their attitude toward what they do?
- How many brothers or sisters? What are they doing now?
- About what does he or she feel the most guilt?
- What level and kind of education does the character have?
- What does the character do well? What does the character do for money?
- What are the character’s friends like? Why do they get along?
- What are the character’s hobbies?
- What is he or she most afraid of? Why?
- What does the character do to relax?
- How does he or she dress?
- What are the character’s religious beliefs?
- How does he or she feel about authority?
- What is the best thing that has happened to the character? The worse?
- What does he or she wish to do for the rest of his or her life? Why?
- What is the character’s strongest trait? Weakest?
- What does the character think is funny?
- What does the character think of him or her self?
- How is the character described by other people?
This next exercise comes from Metro: Journeys in Writing Creatively by Hans Ostrom, Wendy Bishop, and Katharine Haake.
Answer these questions about one character. You must write the answers out, but write quickly and authoritatively. Don’t worry about contradictions between answers: they can be sorted out or used later. Answering the questions quickly and spontaneously is important.
- What is the exact age of your character—years, months, and days?
- A place where you character is living or visiting begins to burn. The character has a few moments to escape. What does he or she grab before getting out of the fire? Why?
- The character enters the room in which you’re sitting. Sits down next to you, places his or her left hand on a table or desk near you. Look at the hand. Describe it in as much detail and you can. Quickly.
- You walk into a room in which your character is napping. Without waking the character up, you lean down, put your nose close to one side of your character’s neck—just below the ear there—and sniff. Describe what you smell.
- Describe one meal or food your character really likes to eat.
- Describe the social, political, and economic background of one of the character’s parents, one of the character’s siblings, one of the character’s friends, or one of the character’s rivals (defining “rival” in a way the makes most sense to you).
- Describe one scar—it can be a very tiny one—on your character’s body and how it was acquired.
- Describe in detail one thing your character would enjoy reading, or some kind of text your character would enjoy examining—a text that might exist with the text of your story.
- Your character laughs at something. What is it? Exactly why does your character think this thing—joke, event, sight, whatever—is funny?
- You are invisible; your presence is unknown by your character. You are observing your character looking into a mirror. Describe your observations.
- “France.” Your character hears that word. What, if anything, come to the character’s mind? Be as specific as you can.
- “I remember . . . “ Your character says or thinks these words. Now provide a list of at least five things your character remembers.
- Describe one not-so-obvious, not–so-easily detected nervous habit of your character. Toe-tapping and drumming-of-fingers-on-table are probably too obvious, too conventional, for example.
- A sound that is especially pleasing to your character—what is it? Why is it so pleasing to the character?
- What is your character’s middle name, and what is the brief history—if any—of that name?
- Describe (compare, contrast) the way is which your character sneezes in private and in public.
- Who is the first American President of which your character was aware, and what is one image or memory your character has of this President?
- Describe a piece of jewelry your character might wear or buy for another person or admire or dislike. (It’s all right to answer all four options, too.)
- List three things your character wants. Why?
- Provide one more telling piece of information about your character.
Finally, this exercise:
A story is a complete dramatic action—and in good stories, the characters are shown through the action and the action is controlled through the characters, and the result of this is meaning that derives from the whole presented experience. I myself prefer to say that a story is a dramatic event that involves a person because he is a person, and a particular person—that is, because he shares in the general human condition and in some specific human situation. The story always involves, in a dramatic way, the mystery of personality. . . . Fiction operates through the senses, and I think one reason that people find it so difficult to write stories is that they forget how much time and patience is required to convince through the senses. No reader who doesn’t actually experience, who isn’t made to feel, the story is going to believe anything that the fiction writer merely tells him. The first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched.
–Flannery O’Connor, “Writing Short Stories”
- Particular sensory details
- How might your character contradict him or her self? To which aspects of his or her own personality is he or she blind?
- How is the villain of your story heroic? How is the hero villainous?
- How will your character be changed by the events of the story?
- What sorts of things would your character do to accomplish his or her goals?
- What would your character never do, even if that action would allow them to reach his or her goal?
- What general idea do you want the reader to have?
- What sensory details will present it?
- How might the character’s desire indirectly show itself in the character’s speech?
- How might the character’s responses to the speech of others characterize him or her?
- How might a character’s thoughts contrast with his or her speech, appearance, and actions?
- Reactions of other characters
- What do the actions of other characters tell readers about the main character?
- How do the main character’s interpretations of the actions of other characters characterize him or her?