Character Development Exercises

By Dr. Maxine Thompson

You should create strong characters who will hold a reader’s interest for 300-400 pages, whether the character is a good person or a bad person. Who the character is will determine what he wants. Make your character act in a courageous way that readers will admire. Test your character. Will he steal $50 if he finds it lying around?

In the first writing class, as an icebreaker, we played a game called “Two Truths and a Lie.” Each attendee told two truths about himself and one lie. Surprisingly, no one ever guessed the correct answer for any of the participants. For instance, one workshop student said that he had been on Oprah, had six children, and had been to prison. Everyone thought that the statement that he had been to prison was the lie. The truth was the student had been on Oprah and had been to prison. He also was a minister with five, not six, children.

Remember, people are full of contradictions. We used the game to show that you can’t judge people by only one aspect of their lives. This not only showed the different parts of people, it showed how a person’s behavior can change over the years. In writing, the best characters do change and grow. They are also conflicted.

Another exercise we played showed the difference between stereotypes and rounded characters. A stereotype might be the “red-necked cracker sheriff.” This archetype has been done to death in literature and movies. How about, shifting the situation. What if he was a white law man with a conscience when a lynching takes place during the depression? Now there’s a story with a fresh twist.

The Konstantin Stanislavski acting method is powerful for bringing characters to life. What would you do if you were in that character’s shoes? Act out each character’s role and put yourself in the middle of the story.

One exercise was used to show the shifts in power in relationships from scene to scene. This is where you learn to use reversal from “dominating to dominated.”

In the exercise using the Rogerian theory, an attendee was assigned to interview people unlike themselves to understand their characters. This is crucial when you’re writing about a despicable character such as a child molester or a drug dealer. The Carl Rogers theory was used to develop communications between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Its purpose is to have each person understand someone who holds a polar opposite point of view.

If someone asked you to describe a certain person, how would you do it? Exercise: Write character sketches and descriptions for five different characters. Be sure to include important details about their history, personality, and context (setting—time and place). Then pick the character who interests you the most, and write a brief scene putting that character into a conflict in an imagined setting (time and place.) The critical part of this is to think, in advance, how you would describe someone to a friend if he asks you what you think of a certain person. This simple method is the single fastest, most "telling" way of getting at character that I know of.

The other key to creating interesting characters with built-in conflict is to bring together characters from different backgrounds. Your characters should come from disparate lifestyles, different classes, different races. How do they connect? Disconnect? Put together your characters and look at ways to derive build-in conflict, such as the HBO special, “Oz,” where men of different backgrounds are in prison.

How to Build Your character’s Personality

 1. If your character applied for a job, what would they put on the application?
 2. What is your character’s religious background?
 3. How does your character’s physical appearance affect his self-esteem?
 4. What are some of your character’s mannerisms?
 5. Is your character urban bred or country bred?
 6. What is your character’s social or economic class?
 7. How many family members are there and what birth order was she born in?
 8. Where does she live?
 9. What kind of work skills does she have and how does this affect her role in the story?
 10. How is your character different from others and how does that affect the story?
 11. Is your character married or single? Any children?
 12. Any physical handicaps? Speech impediments?
 13. What makes your character an outsider from the norm in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, or ability?
 14. In what ways is your character conflicted?
 15. What is your character’s deepest secret?
 16. Outline your major scenes and use index cards for each character.
 17. Ask yourself, what is the worse thing that can happen to my character?
 18. How can it get even worse?
 19. Who is going to solve this problem? Your hero or heroine or a helper? (Preferably your protagonist will work out his own problem.)