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Writing Prompt #10

July 5, 2010

Building the personality of a character can be both an act of creation and an act of discovery. It’s as if you’re a god, tinkering with the raw clay from which the character is built. You add a touch of style, a wicked sense of humor, maybe a hint of madness. You create the person you want her to be. But how does she get that way? Once you lift the lid, the character may give you new information. She may come to life and starting informing you who she is, rather than the other way around.

Writers often report that at some point a character just takes on a life of her own and runs away with the story. This can be helpful or not, depending on your style of writing. If you have a carefully constructed plot, with a detailed outline of what needs to happen, an uncontrollable character might present an inconvenience. Then again some writers revel in the chance to witness, and report on, a character who gets into trouble without any direction from the guiding hand of god, I mean the writer.

If you prefer to get to know your characters BEFORE putting them in the thick of things (i.e. your novel), then this week’s prompt will get you started. Fleshing out your characters beforehand not only helps you incorporate the little details that lift them off the page, but can also yield buried treasure in the form of hidden conflicts, unresolved backstories, submerged goals that you hadn’t previously considered. All of these can inform and enrich your story. Or they may inspire you to take the story in an entirely new direction.

In the previous writing prompt, you came up with some basic characters, perhaps even fleshed them out a bit. If you’re not in the mood to go back, or would like just one more technique for creating a quick character type, here’s another favorite:

Archetypes

Scholars, philosophers, and psychologists the world over have been working with archetypes for centuries. Carl Jung, Joseph Cambell – the masters have given writers a huge step up when building characters. You can throw a dart on the wall, hit a basic personality type, and in an instant have the foundation on which to build an entirely new person.

Here’s a list of archetypes to inform and inspire you: http://www.listology.com/list/character-archetypes

The Interview

Turn to the “Character” chapter in just about every book on writing and you’ll find a list of interview questions to ask your character. A quick Google search will give you more than enough to get you started. Typically, your interview questions will delve into the innocuous details of a character’s life – favorite color, favorite food, etc. But to go meta for a moment, here are some general approaches for delving in deep without a specific list from which to work:

1. Choose a character that you want to know more about. As a visual person, I sometimes find an approximate representation of that person on Google Images, just to give me a focal point.

2. Imagine you’re meeting this person for the first time at a party. Let’s say it’s a friend’s birthday party. You want to learn as much about this person as possible in 5 minutes. Go.

3. Now start over. You’re interviewing people for an open position at your company and this person walks into your office. Make a note of your first impression, then begin the job interview. You have 5 minutes to figure out if she’ll be a good fit for your company. Go.

4. Now start over. You’re a reporter and you’ve been given the assignment of interviewing a total stranger. You have to find a story in there. You have 5 minutes to figure out what makes this person tick, why she’s noteworthy, and what kind of drama she’s engaged in that would be of interest to your readers. Go.

Bonus: If you have the time, increase these to 10 minutes or longer. Also, if the character is at least in the ballpark of your romantic potential, treat this character to a round of speed-dating. Spend 5 minutes (or 10) deciding if this is someone you would want to get to know better.

Don’t worry if you don’t get too deep with these “interviews”. 15 minutes is not long enough to get to know anyone. But it’s a start. To flesh out the character a bit more thoroughly, here’s a really good set of interview questions. Here’s another one.

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