Being Banned from Cafes: 10 Character Description Writing Exercises (Part I)

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1   People watch. Identify a moment when you have a block of free time, take a pen and notepad somewhere public/where there are other people, and just watch the people that pass by you. You could sit in a cafe, on a public bench, in a shopping centre/mall, in a park, on a kerbside, at your living room/kitchen window overlooking a street or pavement, anywhere – try to choose a place where there might be other people, or where there are people who are similar to the characters you are writing about.

Exercise: Note down all of the little details that you notice about the people and things that you see. Who/what are they? What do they look like? What are they doing? What do you think they will do next? Be specific about your notes – don’t just say that somebody is wearing jeans and a jumper, describe the clothing. What colour are the jeans? What style are they? Are they ripped, flared, boot-cut, skinny? How old do you think they are? Were they bought recently, or are they many years old? Any patches? Stains?

Notice the little things: what sort of people are there and what are they doing? What do they look like? Notice the chipped nail varnish, the knot in somebody’s shoe-laces, or the red and runny-nose. Notice the many shopping bags spilling with the week’s groceries, or the new school shoes and Moses basket. Read through and think about what these details tell you about the people you saw.

2   Interact. Get involved with your environment! If you’re at a cafe, go and buy a drink. Say something nice to the cashier: “the coffee is really nice here,” “it’s a lovely sunny day,” “I like your hat”, or something. Be casual, be polite, but be social. See what happens. Maybe try doing something that one of your characters does – roller-skate in the shopping centre, or give out free flowers in the park. What sort of reaction do you get from the people you interact with? If you’re there on a regular basis, you might find that people start to remember you and ask you about what you’re doing, or even join in.

One of my writing groups regularly meets ( once a month) in an upstairs cafe in a shopping centre, and over time the staff have become familiar with each of us. At one of our meetings, the cashier and I began a jokey conversation that resulted in him pretend-barring me from the cafe as he had already seen me there that week. As an aside, it was very interesting to note the reactions of the queue behind me – some were amused, some surprised. Some of them had been listening to the full (short) conversation, some only half-listening, and some were not listening to it at all. One lady was telling her son which biscuits he could and couldn’t have, another man was counting out his silvers. Find a way to be involved in your setting, and make a note of the various ways other people react.

Exercise: Write a page, or a character description, incorporating similar details.

3   Read.  There is a phrase that says that “not every reader writes, but every writer reads”, and it’s true. In order to write well, you need to read. Read a lot. Reading exposes you to characters, thoughts, ideas, writing styles, and much more. It exercises your mind, and improves your motivation and creativity. It improves your use of language, and develops your speaking and writing styles in ways you won’t even notice. It keeps your mind fresh, agile, and inspired, and teaches you that if you strive towards your dreams you can reach them. It teaches us that heroes and villains are just people, complicated and confused, and that in order to go on an adventure you merely have to sit down with a book.

It is useful to read books in the same genre as your own writing, as this gives you a general sense of the length and formats common to the market you are operating in. Some genres tend to be longer or shorter than others. It also gives you an idea of your competition, and stories with similarities to your own writing you can reference in query letters during submissions.

Besides your own genre(s), it is useful to read a variety of types and styles of book. Read fiction and non-fiction, fantasy and crime, historical and romance, reference, popular science, poetry, graphic novel, stand-alone and series. You don’t have to read the whole book if you’re not enjoying something, but be open about your reading choices. Explore new ideas and styles.

Exercise: Choose one of your favourite books. Without referring to the book, write a character description for one of the characters in the book. Identify their strongest personality traits, and make a note about why those traits are important to the story or how they affect the character’s choices or behaviours. Look back at your own characters, what are their strongest personality traits?

4   Change your POV. Try seeing things from an alternative point-of-view, how would your character react if they were living/experiencing your own life? Apply the rules of your fictional world, and get inside your character’s head. How would your character react in your world? How would they react to other people? How would other people react to them? How do they differ from you? How would you react in your character’s world? Try to understand the circumstances and approaches of the characters you are writing about.

Exercise: Fill in a survey from their perspective, or write a character profile from their point-of-view.

5   Channel your character.  Set your character free, and let them take over your writing!

Exercise: Open a new document, or find a blank page and a pen, and let your character do whatever they want! Let them make the decisions, and follow them wherever they lead. Write whatever they want you to write. Do whatever they want you to do. This is probably an odd analogy, but imagine you are sitting on a train. You lift your feet into the air, sit on your hands, and completely relax your body so that the movements of the train wholly control how you move. When the train traverses a bend, you lean in the far direction. When the train brakes hard, your face presses deep into the seat cushion beside you. Let your character be the train – drop your author control, pick your feet up, sit on your hands, and let your character take you on a journey.

Whilst you likely won’t end up using any/much of this in your story, it’s a good way to get to know your character and to see them in an environment with no rules or limits. How do they react to their sudden power? What do they do first? What do they do ultimately? Do they meet anyone? Do they interact with you? Go on a little adventure with your character – explore, experiment, observe.


Enjoy this post? Have a look at steps 6 to 10 with Part II!

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