Writers are constantly asking: “how can I write believable, compelling characters?”, “how can I write realistic characters?”, “how can I write characters with depth?”
The answer is, it takes practice: and here’s one way to do that.
Characters are strange things. As writers, we like to think we’re in full control of our characters, that we decide who they are and what they do in a given situation. We like to think that we’re masters of their destiny. But this is a writing exercise that’ll make you think a little differently about the imaginary people we use to populate our stories, that’ll help you get to grips with their particular traits and foibles, and could just freak you out a little along the way.
The first step: choose a stereotype.
We’ve all come across these in literature: the red-faced drill sergeant; the self-obsessed prima donna; the hard-boiled detective. These are characters we know before they’re even introduced on the page. They’re archetypes we’ve seen countless times before in film and television, in one form or another. They’re usually considered the hallmarks of bad writing, but for this exercise they’re particularly valuable.
So, you’ve chosen your archetype. Now whether you chose the wild-haired mad scientist or the sensitive poet, the jolly baker or the wise old man, you need to take that character and lock them in a room.
A room without windows or furniture.
That’s all there is to it. Lock them in a room and begin writing. The chances are, your character is going to be pretty confused. Angry, even. They’re going to want to know where they are, why they’re there, and who put them there. They might be afraid. As you keep writing, your character will likely pass through a whole range of emotions – but there’s only one that really interests us.
That’s right: what your character does when they’re bored is possibly the most telling aspect of their personality. What does the drill sergeant do once he’s run out of parade manoeuvre to practise? What does the detective think about once he’s exhausted all of the possibilities for the case, and he realises he doesn’t have any cigarettes left?
This is where your characters start to behave in a really interesting way.
Now pretty soon, you’re going to have run out of ideas for what to write – but the funny thing about characters is, they never stop being themselves. Before long, you’ll start to feel a little freaked out. You’ll start to feel like you’re no longer completely in control of the character you’ve created. As they bounce around their own head and try to find ways to kill the time, you’ll discover things about them that you didn’t know. It’s not uncommon for a writer to discover that by the end of the piece, their character is completely different from the one they began with.
So give it a go! These pieces can be any length, but the longer they get, the deeper your characters will become. If you take a character from a work you’re in the middle of and apply this technique, I guarantee you’ll return to your book having learnt something new about a character you thought you knew inside out.
I’d love to see how other people get on with this exercise, so if you come up with anything interesting, unexpected or just plain weird, post it in the comments sections below.
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