Writing

Three Writing Exercises for Better Characters

Characters can be tricky to pin down – or even write correctly in the first place. Some lucky writers have characters that are willing to sit down and chat with them. Others can slip themselves into their character’s shoes without much difficulty. If you’re having trouble, working through these exercises may help.

1. Peoplewatching

If you need some ideas for what to make your character look like, observing the real world can help. Even spec fic writers can use these exercises; the world is wide and strange. Ordinary things can look alien when twisted slightly or mixed in new ways. Venture outward from your computer and do something that Miss Manners deplores: eavesdrop.* Follow these steps for a productive eavesdropping session.

  1. Go out in public. A coffee shop or diner is a traditional choice, but it can be anywhere as long as there’s a seat and people around. Bring something to take notes if you’d like; it’ll help you look busy.
  2. Peoplewatch. If someone who’s passing catches your eye, go ahead and watch them pass. Don’t crane your head or otherwise make exaggerated movements, but you can watch them until they move out of your line of vision. If someone who’s sitting in the same area as you looks interesting, don’t stare. Just look up from your work occasionally and glance around the room, including the people in it.
  3. Take everything in. Cast your eyes over the scene as a whole. Identify which people belong to which groups. Two people who approach the registers at the same time might not be together, it all depends on the body language. If three tables have been pushed together so everyone can talk, that’s a big group, ten or so people. What do they have in common? Age, dress, language? Think about small details, too, like clothes and facial expressions.
  4. Mentally describe what you see. “His eyebrows pinched together as he considered the drinks menu.” “Her red galoshes contrasted pleasantly with her white-dotted black tights.”
  5. Listen. Pay attention to both the content of conversations and how the participants say things. Are they speaking fast or slow? Are they bored? Furious? Relaxed? Passionate? What does the speaker assume the listener already knows, and what does the speaker think is important to mention?
  6. Take notes. Either while you’re there or after you leave, write down what you saw and heard. It’s good practice for getting descriptions out of your head and onto paper. If anything you saw inspired you, you’ll want to save it for later.

Peoplewatching Extra Credit: Pick a Scene

When you get home or after the people you were observing leave, pick one conversation you overheard. Name the people involved and turn it into a full-fledged scene. Introduce the characters and describe them in between pieces of dialogue. If it was only part of a conversation and the scene feels incomplete, fill in the rest of it yourself.

  • Try changing the characters and their tone but not the words. See how that changes the story.
  • Pick the character that interested you most in the dialogue and fill in some details. Why were they wearing that shirt that day? Where did they grow up? What’s their usual cafe or diner order? Keep going for as long as you can, fleshing them out as much as possible.

Peoplewatching Extra Credit: List Quickwrite

  1. Take any notes you have, and divide them into tidbits – separate your notes on the barista’s conversation from your description of their hair. Sort the tidbits into three categories: description, mannerisms, and dialogue. Look for patterns; they’ll show you what you like to focus on – and what you don’t. Make filling in the neglected areas a goal for your next outing.
  2. Pick three to five that call to you. Set a timer and write for fifteen minutes about each tidbit, expanding on it. Pretend that these tidbits are the only information you have about a person. Each tidbit could be a different person, or all the same. Explain the character of the person who looks like that, did that, or said that. Once the time is up, move on to the next tidbit.

2. Ennegram Personality Tests

What makes your characters tick? What drives them? What, in short, will cause these people, in particular, to be the ones your story revolves around?

An understanding of human nature will help here. In order to write characters, you have to be able to put yourself into the mindset of someone else. You could get a psychology degree – or, maybe, you could just take a personality test.

Personality tests divide people into groups by temperament. These divisions can give you a framework to understand motivations that are completely foreign to you. Once broken down and examined, those motivations might not be so indecipherable after all.

The Enneagram is particularly useful for creating characters because each of its nine types have very in-depth descriptions available. Each one, when used as a starting point for a character, will provide different results. There are two different possible ways to go about this exercise:

  1. Take a test as your character. There are a couple of quick typing tests available online. Answer the questions how you think your character would answer them, then read about their resulting type below. It’s a pretty entertaining way to learn about your characters. You should end up with more insight into what drives your character and where they could end up at the end of their story.
  2. Choose a type. If you don’t have a plot or main character already in mind, pick one of the type arcs outlined below, and use it to start figuring out your plot. Character development and plot development dovetail and feed into one another, so once you have the beginning of one, you should be able to piece together the other.

Type One: The Reformer

The Reformer is an idealist – a fair and disciplined crusader.

  • Inner fear/drive: The Reformer’s main fear is being defective. They combat this fear by following the rules precisely. The Reformer is drawn to perfection.
  • At the beginning of their arc: A Reformer may be cold, proper, and emotionally constrained. They may be impatient with or resentful of anyone who doesn’t follow the same set of rules they do. They may place a lot of emphasis on manners and tradition or perhaps just on their personal moral code, dismissing or criticizing anyone who doesn’t meet their standards.
  • When things get worse: The Reformer will start to lose control of their emotions, lashing out at those around them or becoming self-absorbed and moody. They will become self-critical and morose, or obsessed with their rulebook. They will be certain that if they simply get more exact or take punishment for not following the rules, then that will fix the problem.
  • What they need to change: The perfection-obsessed Reformer needs to learn that mistakes aren’t the end of the world. The repressed Reformer must change their relationship to their emotions. They don’t need to “get in touch” with their feelings – they feel things very strongly – but they need to learn how to express those feelings clearly and not keep everything stuffed down inside.
  • At the end of their arc: they either have made – or will soon make – a major change in the world (or at least their small corner of it). They’ll learn to relax, have fun, tolerate some rule-bending, and might even realize that the rules that they live by aren’t applicable anymore (or weren’t in the first place). A Reformer at peace with themselves will still have respect for the rules but will be able to bend those rules when needed, or use the rules to reach their goals instead of being kept from them.

Type Two: The Helper

The Helper is a friend – sincere, compassionate, and generous.

  • Inner fear/drive: The Helper’s main fear is being too needy. They combat this fear by constantly taking care of others. The Helper is drawn to others’ needs.
  • At the beginning of their arc: a Helper may be clingy and manipulative, or just feel trapped. They may be running themselves ragged looking after others, while privately resentful of others’ demands. Or they may have convinced themselves that others can’t do without them, when they’re really a self-important meddler.
  • When things get worse: The Helper will move from assisting to controlling. They will order around or emotionally manipulate those around them, steamrolling over objections. They will be certain that if they can make everyone around them do exactly what they want them to do, that will fix the problem.
  • What they need to change: Trapped Helpers need to step out of the martyr role and learn to say “no” to requests. Self-important and clingy Helpers must stop emotionally manipulating and guilting others into giving them what they want, instead learning to ask honestly. They must learn to acknowledge and fulfill their own needs, not just other people’s.
  • At the end of their arc: They will choose to follow their own dreams, instead of just taking care of the everyday needs of others. A Helper at peace with themselves will be emotionally whole, taking care of themselves as well as others in a genuine, loving way.

Type Three: The Achiever

The Achiever is a star – admired, ambitious, and self-assured.

  • Inner fear/drive: The Achiever’s main fear is of being worthless. They combat this fear by working hard to accrue valuable achievements. The Achiever is drawn to success.
  • At the beginning of their arc: An Achiever may be arrogant, pretentious, calculating, and lying to themselves (and perhaps others) about how successful they are. They’re probably overworked, almost certainly in competition with their peers, and very concerned about their image.
  • When things get worse: The Achiever will get tired. They’ll drop out of their commitments, get overwhelmed by their to-do lists, and generally lose their enthusiasm. They will be certain that if all of their responsibilities disappear, that will fix the problem.
  • What they need to change: The lying Achiever needs to tell the truth to themselves and others, becoming authentic about where they are on the path to success. Lone-wolf Achievers need to learn to cooperate with others and value their relationships. Their consuming focus on goals must be relaxed so they can focus on important things that may not have as much socially perceived value.
  • At the end of their arc: They will learn that their emotional life and relationships are just as important as their achievements. An Achiever at peace with themselves will understand that their worth is not based solely on what they’ve done.

Type Four: The Individualist

The Individualist is an artist driven by their emotions – dramatic, creative, and introspective.

  • Inner fear/drive: The Individualist’s main fear is to be “normal” or “insignificant.” They combat this fear by being special, usually through creative activities, and expressing themselves in as unique a way as possible. The Individualist is drawn to beauty and significance.
  • At the beginning of their arc: An Individualist may be melancholic, tormented, or just self-pitying. If they aren’t retiring and shy, they will simultaneously crow about their uniqueness while envying the ease and competence of those that don’t go out of their way to do things differently. They may be uncomfortably aware of all of the flaws that set them apart or of the areas in their life where they aren’t living up to their unique potential.
  • When things get worse: The Individualist will get overwrought. Uncontrollably buffeted about by their emotions, they will try to distract themselves from their inner turmoil by desperately trying to help those around them.They will be certain that finding the right person to cling to will fix the problem.
  • What they need to change: Emotionally turbulent Individualists must learn to see their emotions clearly and choose whether or not to follow their dictates. Isolated, envious Individualists must learn that their identity will not be destroyed by following instructions or having those parts of a “typical” life that they enjoy. Their self-inflicted melancholy and torment must be set aside for more important goals.
  • At the end of their arc: An Individualist will learn to embrace their unique flaws and those parts of themselves that they have in common with those around them. An Individualist at peace is calmly introspective and can separate their emotions from their values.

Type Five: The Investigator

The Investigator is a scientist on a quest for new knowledge – perceptive, curious, and inventive.

  • Inner fear/drive: The Investigator’s main fear is is being useless or incapable. They combat this fear by gathering information. The Investigator is drawn to competence.
  • At the beginning of their arc: An Investigator may be isolated, eccentric, and nihilistic. They may avoid social interaction and abandon basic tasks, instead obsessing over their chosen subject(s).
  • When things get worse: The Investigator will get hyperactive. They lose their focus and connection to reality, chasing ideas instead of results. They will be certain that if they know enough about it, they can fix the problem.
  • What they need to change: Obsessive Investigators need to relax their grip on The Truth and look for more holistic answers. Alienated Investigators must learn to reach out to others without insulting their intelligence or getting frustrated with their lack of understanding.
  • At the end of their arc: An Investigator will realize they can’t know everything – and that’s okay. They will let go of the idea that there is “enough” and instead pay attention to the world around them. An Investigator at peace is confident in their knowledge, able to focus on many different subjects, and capable of explaining themselves to others. hey have found those that understand and/or value their unusual knowledge.

Type Six: The Loyalist

The Loyalist is a responsible sidekick – trustworthy, practical, and committed.

  • Inner fear/drive: The Loyalist’s main fear is being alone, without support. They combat this fear by faithfully following others. The Loyalist is drawn to security and safety.
  • At the beginning of their arc: A Loyalist may be indecisive, contradictory, anxious, and defensive. They often have a lack of self-confidence, convinced they can’t handle things alone. They may be doggedly following something (an organization, an idea) or someone that they’ve dedicated themselves to, long after it would have been good for them to part ways. They may be convinced that there’s no better option than the one they’re currently “stuck” with.
  • When things get worse: The Loyalist will get competitive. They’ll abandon duty in favor of “winning.” They grow imprudent, brusque, and impatient. They will be certain that if they can gain a prize, that will fix the problem.
  • What they need to change: Fearful Loyalists must learn to trust in themselves. Pessimistic Loyalists must find a team they can have faith in so they can stop trying to over-manage everything.
  • At the end of their arc: A Loyalist will realize it’s okay to take risks; they won’t be abandoned if they make a mistake. A Loyalist at peace feels secure and comfortable. They are surrounded by friends that are always happy to lend a hand and that they can support in return.

Type Seven: The Enthusiast

The Enthusiast is an easy-going hedonist – optimistic, practical, and spontaneous.

  • Inner fear/drive: The Enthusiast’s main fear is pain and deprivation. They combat this fear by being cheerful and entertaining. The Enthusiast is drawn to satisfaction and having their needs fulfilled.
  • At the beginning of their arc: An Enthusiast may be materialistic, impulsive, and escapist. They’re probably focused on superficial, pleasurable things and instant gratification instead of trying for any long-term goals. They are constantly busy, thinking, planning, and chasing new, exciting ideas. They don’t often finish what they start.
  • When things get worse: The Enthusiast will get demanding. Their usual easygoing nature will disappear as they become exacting, picky, and imperious. They are certain that if the negative aspects of the situation disappeared, that will fix the problem.
  • What they need to change: Greedy Enthusiasts must learn to enjoy all of life, instead of just certain pleasurable activities. Distractable Enthusiasts must learn to focus, see details, and complete projects.
  • At the end of their arc: An Enthusiast will learn that that they have enough; they can stop reaching for more experiences and belongings. An Enthusiast at peace has discovered a reliable, healthy way to handle pain. They can have the pleasurable experiences they crave without destroying the foundations of their life.

Type Eight: The Challenger

The Challenger is a leader – self-confident, decisive, and magnanimous.

  • Inner fear/drive: The Challenger’s main fear is of being controlled. They combat this fear by being strong and avoiding being emotionally vulnerable. The Challenger is drawn to protection.
  • At the beginning of their arc: A Challenger may be confrontational and intimidating, or even destructive and angry, using their power to smack every obstacle out of their way. They are probably blunt and to the point, controlling of others and grandiose in their presentation. They are constantly grasping for power and control, which may lead to ignoring the needs and input of others when solving problems.
  • When things get worse: The Challenger gets scared. Their self-confidence fades, causing them to avoid others. Instead of powering through and doing, they hang back, cowed. They will be certain that if they can come up with a plan, they will solve the problem.
  • What they need to change: Controlling Challengers must learn to relax and work with the people under their care instead of against them. Destructive Challengers must learn to open their hearts and care about the world around them instead of getting angry when things don’t go their way.
  • At the end of their arc: An Challenger will learn that good relationships are worth many small compromises. A Challenger at peace with themselves is self-reliant, important, and in control of their lives, without trampling over others. They’re helpful and charming to those around them, and protective of those under their care.

Type Nine: The Peacemaker

The Peacemaker is a Zen master – agreeable, complacent, and stable.

  • Inner fear/drive: The Peacemaker’s main fear is conflict and loss. They combat this fear by being calm and avoiding trouble. The are drawn to tranquility.
  • At the beginning of their arc: A Peacemaker may be oblivious, resigned, disengaged emotionally, and passive-aggressive. They are often lazy and stubborn, unwilling to change the problems around them. They’re focused on maintaining the status quo, even if that means ignoring what they personally want.
  • When things get worse: The Peacemaker gets worried. They become fearful, suspicious, and doubtful. With their usual phlegmatic attitude missing, they become convinced that they’re headed for catastrophe. They will be convinced that if they can get enough help, that will fix the problem.
  • What they need to change: Slothful Peacemakers must become more intent and willing to take action to engage the world. Self-neglecting Peacemakers must learn to become healthily selfish, standing up for themselves and what they want.
  • At the end of their arc: A Peacemaker will learn even if they accept that change happens and that life is dynamic, they will still be able to find their center. A Peacemaker at peace has abandoned their false calm, reclaimed their repudiated needs, and walked through the difficulties that had lain before them in order to build a true, enduring serenity.

Type descriptions adapted from here and here.

Ennegram Extra Credit: Type Arguments

  1. Choose one to three types that seem most like your character (or most closely fit your plot points, if you don’t have a character yet). Explain why your character shares that type’s inner fear/drive. What are they drawn to? What do they fear?
  2. Choose one to three types that don’t seem like your character at all, and explain how your character is different from these types. Look at what your character has been through (or your plot points), and explain how the way your character reacted is different from how these types would react. How does your character react when the chips are down?
  3. Roll a d10 three times and write down the results.* Answer the following questions for each result. Would your character hate someone of that type? Pity or be disgusted by them? Or would they like them? Would they shore up each other’s weaknesses? These types might fit for a sidekick, friend, or nemesis.

Ennegram Extra Credit: Character Combos

  1. Pick two types that could easily come into conflict, such as The Helper and The Challenger, or two that could get along fairly well, such as The Individualist and The Enthusiast.
  2. Describe each type as if they were a character.
  3. Describe the relationship between these two characters.
  4. Write a scene with tension or conflict between these two characters. Here are some examples:
    • Character A owes Character B a debt. B comes to collect.
    • Character A trips and knocks into Character B. B drops their groceries.
    • Character A purchases something from Character B, then comes back an hour later to return it.
    • Character A is roommates with Character B, and A discovers their food is missing.
    • Character A and Character B are coworkers, stuck in an endless, unimportant meeting. Character B desperately needs to leave and gets help from Character A.

Relationships Diagram

One of the things that will define your character and drive your plot is their relationships to others. Making a visual representation of those relationships can be helpful in finding gaps or themes that you didn’t realize you had.

  1. Write down the names of all of the characters that you have so far.
  2. Grab a big piece of paper. Write the name of your protagonist(s) in the center. Draw a circle around their name.
  3. Working outwards, with more important relationships closer and minor characters further out, write in the rest of the characters you have so far.
  4. Think the situation at the beginning of your story. Draw lines between each bubble that has a relationship at that time. Use different colored markers or pens for each relationship type, such as romantic, enemies, coworkers, family, and so on. Use a dotted line for people who have only met once or that know of each other but haven’t met. Use an arrow for unequal relationships: unrequited love, one-sided hatred, etc.
  5. Draw the map again, but instead, arrange the relationships and draw the lines that exist at the end of your story.
  6. Compare the two maps.
    • Identify relationships that are different at the beginning and the end of the story. Which changes are important for the audience to know about? Make sure the change will be demonstrated over at least a few scenes. If it’s a relationship with the protagonist that changes, it should get more screen time than a relationship that changes between two minor characters.
    • Your main character(s) should have connections with all of the characters – even if they don’t know that they’re connected. If a character isn’t connected to the protagonist(s), in any way, what are they doing in your story? Consider removing any character with more than two degrees of separation, or bring them closer to the protagonist.
    • What’s the dominant relationship-type across your cast? Animosity? Family ties? Shared past? If one color jumps out at you more than the rest, make sure that type of relationship is included in your plot’s themes.
    • Are there any obvious holes? Is your protagonist only supplied with weak or unimportant relationships? Do some of your important characters never meet? Take note of scenes that need to be added or plot developments that need to be accounted for.
    • If you have multiple protagonists, the relationship between them is going to be one of the most important themes in your story. It will also provide lots of character motivation for each protagonist. Do any of them have a stronger or more important relationship with someone other than the other protagonist(s)? If the relationships between your protagonists don’t change over the course of the story, consider switching which characters are your protagonists or moderating the strength of their relationships.

Relationship Map Extra Credit: Character Combos

Pick a relationship, or set of relationships, from your map that aren’t well-established in your mind, and answer these questions.

  • What do these people have in common?
  • What do they argue about?
  • How long have they known each other?
  • Was their relationship ever different? If so, what happened?
  • If they’re enemies, what are the circumstances under which they could be friends, or vice versa?

Relationship Map Extra Credit: Adjectives

  1. Work through each relationship with the following questions:
    • What does it look like when these characters get along?
    • What does it look like when these characters don’t agree?
  2. Pick an adjective to describe this relationship. Use a thesaurus, if needed. If the relationship is two sets of one-sided feelings, choose two adjectives.
  3. Write the adjective(s) along the connecting line(s).
  4. When writing a scene, refer to your maps to remind yourself of the state and trajectory of the relationship between the players.

 

Good exercises challenge us to see the world – and our own work – in new ways. While it can be disappointing to realize your characters need more work, it’s also great to know you can improve them. Good luck pinning them down!

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Comments

  1. Skylark

    These exercises are quite interesting – will have to try a few of them out for myself, hopefully flesh out some of my secondary cast a little.

    For the personality test one, I’d add that other tests can be useful as well, like the Myer-Briggs test, for inspiration or defining a character. Often, the process is as informative as the results – taking the test means you have to think through how your character reacts to different situations. And if the results aren’t what you expected, or wanted, it’s good to question why. Did the wording of a question change how you answered? Would that translate to a slightly different reaction from your character? Is your character acting in contrast to their emotions or desires, or in denial about some aspect of their identity?

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