Writing Exercise: Developing Rounded Characters

Have you ever written a character who is a vaguely average person, or a resemblance of you? Over the years I’ve edged away from that pitfall, but it still calls to me from afar: go for what’s safe and easy! But that leads to boring stories. One way to practice creating round, unique characters is to draw inspiration from people who aren’t you, your friends, or your family.

Look to strangers for inspiration. More specifically, look into photographers’ books of portraits. The beautiful book by Steve McCurry has hundreds of pictures. Hundreds of people. All unique and with a story to tell. 

So here’s my advice:

  • Obtain a portrait book, or flip through old National Geographic magazines at random. 
  • Pick three people. They don’t need to have similar global locations, nationalities, personalities, or anything. Some can be homely, and some bizarrely expressive. Your pick.
  • Use visual clues for insight into this person’s character. Clothes, jewelry, tattoos, religious symbols, etc. will help you guess at their backstory. Many people carry their identities on their sleeves. They want to be known. 
  • Set them in room together, throw in some conflict, and see what they do. Are they waiting at an airport, watching their plane crash on the runway? Did they get into a fight during an AA meeting? It’s up to you!

After you’ve written out the scene, you might want to pursue this story even further. But if you don’t, please don’t throw it away. Set it aside, and come back after a few months. Maybe the story will be ripe for the picking, and you’ll be ready to pursue it to the end. 

My opening question still stands: Have you ever written a character who is a vaguely average person, or a resemblance of you? How do you avoid this pitfall?

Writing Exercise: Close Your Eyes and Imagine…

I get distracted by visuals. The room around me screams for attention. Watermarks on the kitchen table, the half emptied dishwasher. Even the computer screen distracts me when I’m trying to write. Double spaced or single. How does that sentence look? Does it spill onto the next line? The next page? Punctuation needs to be perfect, so of course I have to go back and fix that mistake. Pretty soon, I’m no longer writing a story. All that’s coming out is proper grammar and punctuation, all the little scribbles that look nice on the page. My imagination has been invaded by visual stimulus.

Stop. 

Just stop.

Does this happen to you too? 

Close your eyes and ignore the space around you. Imagine the scene that you’re writing and the space your characters are in. What color are the walls? Are there watermarks on their table? What is the mood? 

Lift you hands to the keyboard and type with your eyes still closed. Don’t go back for misspelled words—as long as they’re recognizable, they’ll be fine. Plus, muscle memory will seriously kick in. Punctuation? Don’t worry about it. Free your imagination from all distractions and go. Just go. 

This is a good way to beat writer’s block, and to focus on your work when life is pulling you in a million directions. Try it out.

Does it work for you? How’s that scene coming?