Take Your Characters Out to Lunch: 5 Development Exercises

The words “character building exercise” sound approximately as fun as changing the cat’s litter box or cleaning the gutters. Exercise is rarely enticing until you actually begin doing it, even when it’s for storytelling muscles instead of glutes or biceps. 

Exercises mean more work outside of a manuscript, but prompts and short writing sprints allow writers to examine their characters under a different lens than what is possible within the confines of a story’s world. Force your villain to change a flat tire, or have your medieval hero figure out how to make microwave pizza—you might learn something surprising about the people you’re trying to create. Like a date, it’s part of the process of getting to know another person better (in this case, an imaginary person).  

Say you’ve been working on a manuscript for about a month now, and things are getting pretty serious—maybe even serious enough to propel you through the long haul of second round edits, querying, and lost sleep that could one day lead to the ultimate goal of publication. But before any of that, test the waters by spending a quiet afternoon with your characters. You wouldn’t propose marriage after one conversation, would you? Writing a novel is a substantial commitment; don’t waste all that time on second-rate characters.  

Below are a few exercises culled from various corners of the web and elsewhere that are designed to help you get the most from your character “date,” using a few of the most common driving forces of human behavior.

Test Their Loyalty

The tumblr page dailycharacterdevelopment has a constant stream of new ideas to try out. Many of them are a tad sadistic, but that’s perfect for testing the mettle of a character. Even heroes are corruptible as long as they're human, and perfect characters are anathema to a reader. What is your character's price?

Consider the limitations of your character’s loyalty to the people they care about. Describe one situation in which they could be moved to betray these people.

Make a Confession

Confessions are intriguing because they’re the answer to a mystery. The novel Rebecca is hinged almost entirely on one earth-shattering confession, to the extent that all the character’s movements orbit around it, from the very first page. Why does no one want to say the deceased Rebecca’s name? Why does her widower husband spend his nights pacing the study floor? Here’s another prompt from tumblr of a rather less dramatic nature, although any confession will do. The blog fuckyeahcharacterdevelopment is another good resource for quick, original prompts.

Your character has a dark secret, but they decided to come clean — at least to their partner/ best friend. Today is the day that they admit it: ‘I am a shipper’.

Who are they shipping for? How does the partner/best friend react?

Do Some...Normal Stuff

One of the best ways to get to know a person is through their choices. In The Secret Miracle, a compilation of author quotes on the process of writing, Josh Emmons comments, "As my characters move through their world and make choices—yes to steamed broccoli, no to Tantric sex—I gradually learn their likes and dislikes."

The following exercise from the Script Lab is one way of moving that process along.

Even the cold-blooded assassin needs to eat. Everybody goes to the grocery store, but not everybody shops the same. Choice – the act of selecting or making a decision – marks the difference between people.

First, go to the grocery store and grab a cart. Then start to fill it up with things your character would buy (or just look at the shelves as you shop for stuff you actually want so you don't ring up a $500 bill for someone who doesn't exist). Or, back to the lunch date metaphor: pack a picnic for the two of you. What would he/she bring?

Be Their Twitterary

This prompt from the website of Shannan Palmer, PhD suggests:

Write a description of your character from her own point of view. It might be her hypothetical profile for an online dating site or her work bio.

But why stop at a work bio? A "twitterary" (yes, that's a real thing) is someone who is the secretary of a celebrity twitter account. If your characters were asking you to post things on twitter, what would they write? Would they even use twitter, or might they keep a Wordpress blog? The purpose of this isn't to waste time on social media, but to get to know your character's voice better in a casual setting. How do they react to their daily problems? Another short exercise, if you can make it past all the Nutella recipes, is to create a Pinterest board for your character by selecting images they might be drawn to.

Get Meta

This is another exercise along a similar vein to the shipping confession, whereby the character understands that he/she is fictional. The University of Iowa recommends:

Choose a character from a story you have written or are in the process of writing, then write a scene or multiple scenes in which that character interacts with you.

This isn't just for the benefit of the character, but also the author. It's a way for the writer to detach from a character, since the people we write about are so often heavily connected to ourselves. Having your protagonist address you directly is one way of finding out how much you share, and where they differ from their creator. What does your character think of you? Was your lunch date a success, or have they had better?

Photo by Knar Bedian

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Leah Dearborn

Column by Leah Dearborn

Leah Dearborn is a Boston-based writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in international relations from UMass Boston. She started writing for LitReactor in 2013 while paying her way through journalism school and hopping between bookstore jobs (R.I.P. Borders). In the years since, she’s written articles about everything from colonial poisoning plots to city council plans for using owls as pest control. If it’s a little strange, she’s probably interested.

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Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb July 11, 2014 - 1:19pm

Love this column....I do just about all of this and more, except that I don't write it down in note form. I sometimes do write the sorts of scenes that come from these exercises into manuscripts and occasionally they make the final cut. The talk about even the assassin needing to eat makes me think of how I wrote the line 'It's okay, oysters are fine' during a dinner scene.