What makes an engaging or compelling character?
How do you create one?
What can you do to make the people in your head come over on the page?
The two main purposes for these development exercises are 1) to help you solidify your characterization by imaging your character in a variety of situations; and 2) to you work with the information you have. Knowing your character as you do, you have to write about him or her in a way which makes use of the knowledge you have. The image often used here is an iceberg: most of what you know about your character will never be seen (or, stated) directly. Much of it will never be used at all. However, it is good for you - the writer - to know everything so that you can be confident about your character and how he or she will react in any given situation.
1st development exercise: writing in the third person, describe your character is an environment familiar to him/her, carrying out some habitual action (work, eating, sleeping, domestic chores, driving, shaving,), whilst in the grip of some intense emotion. Suggest as much as you can about your character without spelling things out or ‘telling’. Convey the mood, without naming it. Aim for about a page.
2nd development exercise: list the contents of your character's purse, pockets, grocery cart, brief case or car. Then write a short scene in which someone other than your character is looking for something in the purse, car or whatever.
Name and age?
Nickname? Who gave it?
What is most noticeable about your character’s appearance/physical presence? How does he or she feel about it?
Describe his or her voice, verbal ticks, pet phrases etc.
Describe a gesture your character makes.
Where does he or she now live? Describe the city, town or village, the house itself. Be very specific. It doesn’t have to be in Canada. Any feelings about this place?
Has s/he lived elsewhere? What does s/he remember of these places?
What part of her home is her favourite? Least favourite? Why. Describe, using specific details.
What does your character’s bedroom/sleeping place look like? (lots of detail please)
What does he or she wear to sleep in?
What does your character dream of at night?
Who are/were her parents? Rest of family? What does she feel for them?
Class, ethnic group, religious background?
Who does s/he love, or has s/he loved? Or what. Detail.
Who loves him or her?
Married/ in relationship/single? Give names and specifics.
How does your character feel about sex/intimacy? What sexual relationship(s) is he or she involved in?
Exactly what does your character do to make a living (or in the case of a child, what do his/ her parents do; or in the case of independent wealth, how does he or she pass the time?)? How much does s/he earn? Feelings about work? What is the best part of the job, the worst?
Who or what does/he fear?
What about his or her life would he or she change if s/he could?
Does the character have a hobby? Secret passion? (Can be something ordinary like soccer playing or yoga classes or mountain biking or sewing or fixing up old trucks - or an unusual interest like some Greek poet from the third century, or collecting spiders, or walking the tightrope…
What would be his or her favourite smell ( why)?
What kind of shoes does he or she wear, (e.g. furry slippers or gumboot or trainers… new or old, style, what colour, fitting properly or too tight or too loose, nice and clean or old and smelly)? Describe exactly.
Favourite meal? Attitude to food?
What is the worst thing that could happen to him or her right now?
What vehicles does your character use/own? (for example: bike, skateboard, truck, yacht, stroller, canoe, spaceship, battered pickup, etc.. please be as exact as possible). What are his/her feelings towards it/them. What kind of journeys does he or she make?
What is his or her most treasured possession?
What illnesses has he or she suffered, if any?
What’s his/her philosophy of life? For example’ You’ve got to look after Number 1’ or ‘Never say die’ or ‘Don’t ask for reasons.” What are his or her most strongly held beliefs?
What does he or she feel guilty about?
Biggest mistake ever made?
Best thing he/she ever did?
What, right now, does your character want most of all? His or her deepest desire – a glass of water, to get out of her marriage, a new pair of shoes, peace and quiet…
Kathy Page is the author of six novels, including The Story of My Face (short-listed for the 2002 Orange Prize) and Alphabet (finalist for the 2005 Governor General's Fiction Award). Complex characters and compelling narrative are Page's trademarks, as is suspense, both psychological and existential. She is an award-winning short fiction writer and has 20 years experience as a workshop leader. Kathy moved to Canada from the UK six years ago. She lives on Salt Spring Island and currently teaches fiction courses at Malaspina University College.