Whenever I’m working on a story idea, I spend a lot of time during the development stages making character sketches and writing backstories for my characters. I usually end up with too many of them, so some characters get cut. The lucky ones get resurrected in some other story.
Some of my favorite stories are plot-driven, but character-driven stories tend to resonate with me on a deeper level, which is why I believe that regardless of plot, stories with strong and compelling character arcs are the best. They start with a character who wants something, and we see the character through conflict after conflict until he or she emerges changed, usually stronger and for the better.
The most compelling characters are unique in some way and brimming with personality. But they are flawed too, and I think that oftentimes, readers find themselves more in the characters’ flaws than in their strengths.
Conversely, the least interesting characters lack personality or their goals aren’t clear. Oftentimes, they act “out of character,” doing things that are inconsistent with their established personalities and behaviors.
Character exercises can help with all that.
Create Characters with These Fiction Writing Exercises
These fiction writing exercises are designed to help you create characters…and who knows? Maybe one of these exercises will lead to your next big writing project. Or you can use these exercises to develop a character for a story you’re already working on, but keep in mind that the story itself often shapes characters, so be flexible and allow your character to change with the story. In other words, you don’t have to stick to the profile you’ve created for your character.
1. Character Backstory
I define backstory as everything that happened to the character up to the point where the narrative begins. Sometimes it helps to start at the beginning:
This character was born in a small town south of San Francisco just a few days before the 1906 Earthquake. Her mother was a schoolteacher and her father ran a general store…
The character backstory can be simple, covering the highlights and important events throughout your character’s life. It can also become elaborate, depending on how much detail you want to put in and how clearly the character speaks to you.
For this exercise, write a character backstory starting with your character’s birth and hitting all the major events of your character’s life up to the point where the story starts. Try to write a minimum of 1000 words.
2. Psychological Profile
As with backstory, a psychological profile can be minimal or detailed: What is your character’s greatest fear? What trauma has your character experienced, and how did it shape his or her personality? Does your character have any psychological disorders or conditions?
But the most important question you ask in a psychological profile is this: What does the character want and why?
If you really want to create a character who is complex, then try identifying an internal goal and an external goal, and then figure out what the stakes are. If you can come up with an internal goal and an external goal that are at odds with each other, all the better.
For example, let’s say your character is a detective solving a murder case. His external goal is to catch the culprit, but if the evidence points to someone he knows — someone he cares about — it would conflict with his internal goal, which is to protect loved ones.
For this exercise, list your character’s internal goal, external goal, and what’s at stake. This is an especially useful exercise to do with a protagonist. Whenever your story gets stuck, remind yourself what the protagonist’s goals are, and that will often get you back on track.
Bonus: if you’re creating a character who is not the protagonist, write a short description (it might be just a single sentence) stating the character’s purpose to the story.
3. Coping with Conflict
Some say that story is conflict — just one conflict after another. These conflicts are constantly pushing characters toward their goals and pulling them away from their goals.
For this exercise, you’ll experiment with writing scenes that show your character coping with conflict. Write one scene where your character faces conflict and gets defeated. Write another where your character overcomes some conflict. If you’re working on a short story or novel, write scenes that take place outside of your story. Try to write a minimum of 1500 words per scene.
A Few More Activities for Creating Characters
- Sketch a picture of your character; search the web for images that resemble your character; or find video showing an actor, actress, or other public figure that you can use as a model for your character.
- Create a character journal and write a few entries in the character’s voice about his or her daily life.
- Write a letter from your character to a loved one (or write a letter from a loved one to your character).
Got any fiction writing exercises or activities that will help writers create characters? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments.