Monday, September 12, 2011

What a Character: The Creative Calisthenic Way to Build Great Characters

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A story stripped of everything else is simply some people doing something somewhere. But notice the construction of that sentence. The people come first. Without well developed characters acting in character, your writing will be stilted and lack realism. 

Here are a few exercises to help you develop great characters:

Background Check

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If you find yourself wondering what your character might do next, then you may need to get to know your character better. Try this exercise. Pretend that your character is under investigation by the police as a "person of interest." The detective turns to his sidekick and says, "Run a background check on ___" What would they find? 

What's their credit like?
What are some of their past jobs?
What's their education?
Were they ever arrested? For what?
Where did they live before the start of the story?
Do they have relatives? Who are they? Where do they live?
What organizations do they belong to?
How many times have they been married? 
Do they have children? Grandchildren?
What are their hobbies?
What awards have they won? 
Where do they work? 
Where did they work in the past?

You get the idea. Even if none of this goes into the story itself, it helps you understand that character. That understanding will make it easier to know how that character will respond when he or she gets into some sticky situation.

Home Beautiful

Everybody has to live somewhere. Whether it is a mansion on Nob Hill or a cardboard box in the Tenderloin, it's home to somebody. Where does your character live? Here are three ideas for bringing your characters home to the readers.

Create a Floor Plan.  What direction does you character turn when leaving the kitchen for the living room? Is her bedroom at the rear of the house? Is his study so close to the kitchen he can smell the roast cooking in the oven? A simple way to keep track is to draw a simple floor plan of the house. You can base it on a real floor plan or create your own. If you want to get fancy about it, you can buy computer programs that will help you lay out your rooms complete with furniture. 

Decorating style.  Describe your character's decorating style. Is it ultra-modern, colonial or country cozy. Maybe it's eclectic. Maybe it's just a jumble of stuff s/he likes. How does your character feel about the d├ęcor? Is the husband happy with his wife's choices for his study? Is the wife happy about her decision to let her husband decorate the den? How does the parent feel about the posters of pop stars adorning the walls of their teenage daughter's room?

Real Estate Brochure.  Pretend that your main characters are selling their home. Write up a brochure. Cut pictures out of magazines to illustrate the rooms. What are the big selling points for the home? Large backyard? Pool? Close to schools? 

Find the Emotion Inside You

You have probably heard of method acting where the actor finds in himself or herself the emotions the character is feeling and uses that to create a depiction of that character. Well, that's a good way to understand the emotions of your characters as well. 

 It starts with a sense memory of an event. Let's say your character is being chased by bad guys. S/he is running for his or her life. Take a piece of paper and write down a detailed description of some time when you were terribly scared of something. Be specific. What were your feelings? Did you heart pound? Did you perspire? What did the perspiration feel like? Smell like? Taste like? What about your breathing. Since your character is running, remember a time when you were running (whether you were running from someone or not) what was that like? Pain in the balls of the foot, blisters, limping, perspiration burning the eyes? 

Once you have those memories clearly in mind, write the scene, drawing on those experiences. 

Help Wanted: Great Characters

Here's something that happens to a lot of fiction writers. We come up with a great premise and a bit of a plot, but then we realize that plots and premises are fine, but it's people who make the story go forward. Even when we have a good idea of what the main characters might be like, we have the supporting cast and a whole host of "bit parts." To help get a good idea of what these characters are like write a help wanted announcement.  Here's one for my work in progress which takes place in an underground settlement on the moon which looks a lot like a small town. 

Wanted: proprietor of a general store on the moon. Must be conversant with the odds and ends of daily life. From everyday china to hammers, nails, screwdrivers, screws and umbrellas. Your job is to keep people supplied with what they need. You should also be able to deliver a little folksy wisdom. If people underestimate you or consider you eccentric all the better. Some side work as a spy may be included in your duties. 

A follow up to this exercise would be to write out a series of interview questions for different "applicants" for the job. What would they list as their qualifications, prior jobs, hobbies, skills, etc. It can be a different and enjoyable way to create a backstory. 

Award Dinner 

I came up with this one while talking to one of the other speech instructors at the college. One of the assignments she gives her students is to prepare a presentation speech for an awards banquet. I thought, "What a great idea for developing a fiction character?" 
One of your characters is receiving an award. What award is it? Who presents it to him/her? What does the presenter say about the recipient? How does your character feel about the award? What does he or she say when accepting the award?

Now, try your hand at one or more of these. Share your results. Also share ways you get to know your characters.

This is adapted from Creative Calisthenics: The Ultimate Workout for the Writers Imagination. Email me to receive a free e-copy of the book (A Five Dollar Value) as well as an anthology of Carolyn Masters Mysteries called Lunar Calendar including one story never before published introducing a pintsized genius and a robotic cat, an exclusive excerpt from Dark Side of the Moon, and a $20 pre-launch discount on premium upgrades to courses offered on the new website. For complete details of this special offer good through November 30, email me at and put “Free Book” in the subject line. 


  1. What a fantastic list. Great ideas here, Terri, that really energize. Thanks!

  2. This is certainly a fun and energizing way of developing characters. I find when I am writing, I just want to tell the story, but I need to slow down and develop the characters. These exercises will really help!

  3. J.Q. This is all pre-writing. Once you get down the characters and really get to know them and make them a part of yourself, then their characters emerge naturally in how they talk, how they approach problem solving, why one rushes toward the scary noise while the other runs away. You won't have to think as much about the story and plot, once you know your characters, because the plot happens when the characters make decisions. Once you know your characters, you know what types of decisions they will make and that will drive the plot forward.

    Of course, once you start writing, you do want to write fast and dirty. You can always come back later and add a few Tweaks to the characterization. Write fast Edit slow. That's the formula.

  4. Terri, this is an awesome list and ideas. I'm interested as well in your concept for this blog and workshops. You have a creative, energetic brain and I'm happy you're sharing it with us.

  5. Great post with LOTS of wonderful ideas to get to know your characters better.

    Thanks for all of these awesome blog posts!


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