10 Writing Exercises to Help with Character Descriptions (Part II)

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6   Identify and describe. Make a list of physical attributes of your character, use bullet points and be specific. List as many points as you can/know – dark hair, freckles, cheek scar, grey eyes, cluster of birthmarks near left ear, pointed chin, wavy bob, multiple piercings, anything.

Exercise: For every bullet point, list at least five alternative/more in-depth descriptions. For ‘dark hair’, you might use: brunette, bistered, raven-headed, hair like a stormy night, ebony, sable-haired, a mane of the smoothest chocolate, etc. Your descriptions will build a clearer, more-specific picture of your character.

7 Background. Think about your past – think about the events, people, experiences, etc, that have influenced you in your life and had an effect on shaping your character into the person you are now.

Identify, or assign, your character’s background. What has happened in their past? Where did they come from? Who are their parents? Are they still in touch with their family? What are their strongest childhood memories? Is there any trauma in their past? Are they running from, ashamed of, or inspired by anything in their background?

Exercise: Write a page, or several pages, on your character’s past. Include details on their origins (birth area), heritage, family, traumas, and any other details you can think of. Even if it doesn’t seem important, write it down. As with anyone, these details and experiences have impacted on and fashioned your character into the person they have become.

8 Create conflicts. Stories are a succession of conflicts, tensions, and obstructions that your character must deal with and overcome in order to reach their story goal. Conflict creates drama, intrigue and interest. With every conflict your character successfully navigates, the more invested they become in their mission (quest to reach their story goal) and the further they travel from their comfort zone.

What things, or people, most make your character uncomfortable? Where is your character most out of their depth? What scares them the most? What person most hates them, or is most disappointed in them? What one scenario keeps your character awake at night for fear it ever happens?

Exercise: Write a page, or several pages, where your character is out of their comfort zone. Identify what scares them the most, what makes them uncomfortable, what they avoid in their life – and confront them with it. How do they react? How do they deal with their new circumstances? Who do they meet? Do these new characters help/hinder/hate your character?

9 Vary and adapt. People are an odd mix of traits, experiences, conflicts, and emotions – all of them complimenting or interfering with each other to make (or, contribute to) a specific, unique personality. Fictional characters, too, are just as complex as real, living people – they have strengths, weaknesses, motivations and motives, emotions, and experiences specific to their particular backgrounds and circumstances.

A personality trait in one person does not necessarily manifest the same way in another person, just as skills are not identical in different people. Albert Einstein, Stephen Fry, and Stephen Hawking are all very different, but each of them could be described as ‘highly intelligent’. Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, and Lyra Belacqua are all ‘very brave’, but they are also all very different.

Exercise: Make a list of all of your character’s personality traits – negative, as well as positive traits. Which personality traits are the strongest? Which ones are the most obstructive to your character in reaching their story goal? Obstructions in your story create conflict and tension, which makes your story more interesting and inviting to your reader.

Think about how you want each of these traits to manifest in your character. Adjust these traits to better reflect your character: break each one down to more specific descriptions. For example: ‘Intelligent’ could become ‘pompous, wry, witty, sophisticated, naughty’, or it could become ‘knowledgeable, wise, educated, slow-paced, serious’. It might become mathematical, or medically-minded. These descriptions build a picture of very different people, and give a much clearer insight into who they are.

10 Skip to the end. How people deal with their accomplishments is as important, and as useful as a measure of a person, as their actual failures and successes. The circumstances of a character’s journey to achieve their story goal will impact on how reaching that goal ultimately affects them, and how they feel, think, and act at the end of the story.

For example, if your character has travelled almost all of their journey with a best friend, only to lose them at the final hurdle, their success will be tainted, bitter-sweet, and mellow compared to how it would have been had the best friend lived. If their victory comes at the price of abandonment, vilification, or tragedy in some form, then guilt is likely to affect your character.

Exercise: Imagine that your story has reached its peak, and that your main character has achieved (or, not achieved) their story goal. Write a page about what your character does immediately following this accomplishment. (If your character doesn’t reach their goal, doesn’t live to the end of the story, etc, imagine a similar success of equal magnitude instead).

Is your character happy? Sad? Spent? Grief-stricken? Wounded? Does your character seek out the most important people to them, or disappear for some much needed alone time? Do they return ‘home’, or has their adventure changed them so much that now they prefer to move on to a new location?

Sometimes, how we expect to feel following an event or particular circumstance is completely opposite to how we actually would feel in that situation. Sometimes, even if we feel as we had expected, we can act in a way that is completely unexpected. Sometimes experiences cut deeper than they might have otherwise, people have a bigger impact on us than we thought, and good things only come at a cost.

Think about everything your character will have gone through in your story, how would you react if you had undertaken a similar ordeal? What does your character do when their quest is finally accomplished?


Enjoy this post? Have a look at steps 1 to 5 with Part I!

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