Writing

Five Exercises for Stronger Narrative Personality

Speculative fiction calls for a vast array of narrative personalities. A spec fic writer could be called on to write in the voice of a clockwork golem, a garter snake, or an otherworldly alien. But instead of flavoring your wordcraft with these perspectives, it’s all too easy to fall back on your natural writing style. That’s a pity. Giving your wordcraft a strong personality will help convey your subject matter and keep your audience engaged.

Writing with a strong personality requires unlocking your creativity, and that’s a very personal thing. These exercises are designed to switch up your writing habits and help you discover what does and doesn’t work for you.

Since some writers need more structure than others, we’ll start with an unstructured approach and add structure as we go. Regardless, try to forgo self-evaluation until it is required for an exercise. Sometimes writing a poor sentence leads to thinking up a great one.

What Does Strong Personality Look Like?

To help you conceptualize what you’re aiming for, I’ll give you some examples of narration with strong personality. Good personality usually includes distinctive phrasing, interesting anecdotes, personal bias or emotion, and sometimes humor.

This is an excerpt from the Hugo-winning Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer. The narrator is an AI with a sense of humor.

I know I wasn’t created by a god or by evolution, but by a team of computer programmers in the labs of a large corporation in Mountain View, California. Fortunately, unlike Frankenstein’s Monster, at least I was a collaborative effort. I’m not sure what it would do to my self-image to know that my sole creator was a middle-aged woman who dyes her hair blue and plays tennis, or a recent college graduate with a hentai obsession. They’re both on the programming team.

And this is a piece from The Fermi Paradox Is Our Business Model by Charlie Jane Anders. Her main character is an alien from a distant galaxy.

The thing about seeking out new civilizations is, every discovery brings a day of vomiting. There’s no way to wake from a thousand years of Interdream without all of your stomachs clenching and rejecting, like marrow fists. The worst of it was, Jon always woke up hungry as well as nauseous.

[…]

At least he was no longer sick to his stomachs (for now anyway) and Instigator responded by pumping more flavors into the chamber’s methane/nitrogen mix.

Jon spent two millimoments studying the emissions from this planet, third in line from a single star.

Notice the use of the word “millimoments,” changing mundane phrasing into distinctive phrasing.

And for a really obvious example, here is an excerpt from a viral story casually written and shared by reddit user wanderingbishop.

I am Garg. I am strong. I am strong because I am Ogre. No-one in the forest is stronger than me. When I was young, the old Ogres make the rules, hit me when I don’t follow. Now I am older. I make rules. I go where I want. I eat what I want. I take what I want.

Unfortunately, writing this distinctive doesn’t work well for an entire novel. The novelty will wear off, and it will become tiresome. But for a very short story like this one, it’s great.

The Personality Pool

For each exercise, you’ll be taking some personalities from this list. When you do, I recommend picking at least one that appeals to you and taking at least one at random. While using a personality that appeals to you can help inspire you, it could also keep you in a rut.

  • A curious but timid mouse
  • A deeply dissatisfied ghost
  • A poet who loves flowery ballads
  • A frightened cyberpunk street urchin
  • A regretful old hermit
  • A pixie after drinking espresso
  • A computer program designed to increase business efficiency
  • A rich and entitled vacationer
  • A child who doesn’t understand what’s happening
  • A psychic medium filled with grief
  • An enlightened alien with vast knowledge of the universe
  • A doll that is really tired after being played with all day
  • A powerful and impetuous dragon
  • An experienced galactic ambassador
  • A cultist on the edge of losing their soul to an elder god
  • An AI that feels embittered toward humans or other biological organisms
  • A bureaucrat digging in their heels
  • A seething baron/baroness

To make things easier, most of these personalities are relatively simple, with few contradicting traits. If you’re ready for something more subversive and complex, you can use hat-drawing to generate stranger possibilities. Put emotions in the first hat, races/species in the second, and professions or other roles in the last. Draw one thing from each hat and use the combination in an exercise.

Exercise 1: Free Write

Take three personalities, and spend fifteen minutes free writing in their voice. You can write about absolutely anything – what you ate for breakfast, which elder god will swallow the world, or what the character’s life is like – as long as you do it with their personality.

Don’t censor yourself; you’re not getting graded on this. Instead, write down whatever you think of. If it’s terrible, just focus on getting into the head of the personality better for the next line. You can do some character development if it helps you. Write the character’s backstory, explain who they are, or give them a compelling goal.

Exercise 2: Flesh Out

Below I’ve provided three brief outlines; match a personality with each. Then flesh them out, staying inside the head of a character with the strong personality.

The length of each piece is up to you. You can write a full scene complete with dialogue that takes several pages, or you can summarize it in a paragraph. While you are following the gist of the outline, don’t be afraid to improvise.

Outline 1:

  • The character peeks into their home by some means other than the front door
  • They realize a trap has been set for them there
  • They leave

Outline 2:

  • The character begins a ceremony, ritual, or performance 
  • Something goes wrong
  • The character loses something important

Outline 3:

  • The character is looking for an item that’s missing
  • They discover it’s in the possession of someone they didn’t expect
  • This leads them to a revelation

If you like one outline better than the others, feel free to try additional personalities in it. You can also make up your own outline, just leave it vague to give yourself room for creativity.

Exercise 3: Rewrite

Go through your stories, and pick three paragraphs of your own fiction writing. Opening paragraphs usually work the best for this; they don’t require as much setup or context. Don’t pick paragraphs that you love, or you might have trouble changing them. A bland paragraph gives you room to add interest.

For each paragraph, re-imagine the story with one of the personalities as the viewpoint character. Then rewrite the paragraph accordingly. Try to keep the general gist the same, but feel free to change any of the details. Your rewrite could also make the paragraph longer or shorter.

Exercise 4: Revision

Grab all the text you wrote for the previous exercises; it’s time to do some creative editing. Editing allows you to improve your technique without worrying about the piece as a whole. It can also help you intellectualize techniques that improve personality.

Try each of these editing tasks. Keep a copy of the original pieces so you can compare later.

  • Select three pieces from your exercises. In each, underline five important words that are commonly used. Look up synonyms for each word, and replace them with a more unique word that fits the personality of the piece better. 
  • Vary the sentence structure of three paragraphs you wrote. In one paragraph, make the sentences longer and more rambling. In another, make the sentences shorter and more to the point. For the third, vary them in a way that strikes your fancy.
  • Choose three pieces you wrote, and within each, add two metaphors that strengthen the personality of the piece.
  • Find three pieces where the emotion of the character feels weakest, and add one to five emotional exclamations such as “Crap!,” “Lucky day!,”  or “Yikes!” Modify the text as necessary to make these exclamations fit in.
  • Choose two paragraphs to rewrite with an obsessive amount of detail. Avoid making this detail mundane parts of the action, such as walking toward a door, reaching for the knob, and turning the knob. Exposition, character thoughts, and sensory description are all good sources of detail.
  • Pick three paragraphs that have good parts and mediocre parts. Cut each in half. Keep the parts that sound the most unique and interesting, and cut the parts that sound vague or generic.

Exercise 5: Reinvention

Look over everything you’ve written for the previous exercises, and choose three things that capture your imagination. It could be a sentence with its own idea of how the story should go, an evocative metaphor, a perfectly crafted paragraph, or a few phrases that suggest a new and interesting idea.

Copy and paste each of these things in a new page. Then expand them. You can free write to fill them out or first make up a vague outline based on an idea you have. Use whatever personality fits the new piece you are working on, but aspire to make that personality stand out.


Once you’re done, put your results away for a while. It’s hard to evaluate your own work without getting some emotional distance from it. Once any impressions of your work have faded, bring the exercises back out. How do they compare to your regular writing? Which techniques produced the best results? The worst? What personalities feel natural, and which do not? Then feed the lessons into your next story.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

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Comments

  1. Kenny

    This is excellent!

    I also like “copywriting” (not sure if that is the term) where i will write out a few pages of a book that I really like to get the feel of the words/construction.

    But more “exercises” please

  2. Lox

    The exercises sound really fun. Though. You could make it even better by making it a competition. Then post your favorite’s. Even better set interesting character parameters.

  3. Vazak

    Very insightful!

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