Writers are not actors, but sometimes we need to get into character.
To truly understand the nature of a character, a writer must step into that character’s shoes. You can use character sketches and descriptions while you’re creating a character, but the character will remain two dimensional until you can get into the character’s head and understand what makes them tick.
It’s harder than it sounds. Your first impulse might be to act like a puppet master, pulling the character’s strings and controlling every action and line of dialogue. But what you really need to do is scoot over and get in the passenger’s seat. Let your character do the driving and ride along as an observer. And that’s exactly what today’s fiction writing exercises will help you do.
Tips for Getting Into Character
Many artists and creative people talk about entering “the zone.” This is a state of mind in which you’re running on automatic pilot. Your right (creative) brain is fully engaged and your left (logical) brain is snoozing with one eye open. It is in this state that people often get lost in an activity, lose track of time, and produce some of their best creative work.
When you’re getting into character, it’s best to be in the zone. Tackle these fiction writing exercises when you’re calm and relaxed and willing to let your imagination override your logical thinking.
Fiction Writing Exercises for Getting Into Character
Exercise #1: Chat
Launch your word processing software and start a conversation with your character. Most of us have engaged in online chats or text messaging. This is the same idea. If chat is not a comfortable medium for you, then try composing emails back and forth between you and your character.
Before you start, you might want to come up with a list of questions to ask your character. Also, this is a great exercise to use when you get stuck in a story that doesn’t want to move forward. Simply chat with your characters to find out what’s holding them back from taking the next step.
Your chat might look something like this:
WRITER: You’re just sitting there, doing nothing. What’s your problem?
CHARACTER: I don’t know what to do.
WRITER: What are your options?
Exercise #2: Stand-in Situation
Take your character out of the story you’re writing and put the character in a difficult situation. Think of riveting scenes from books you’ve read or movies you’ve seen or use scenes from your own life.
A few quick ideas for scenes that will reveal how your character handles challenges:
- Your character is late for an important meeting and trying to hail a taxi when there’s a sudden distraction. This could be an accident in the street, a beautiful man or woman walking by, or an emergency phone call from a desperate friend or family member. Does your character hop in the cab and head to the meeting or stop to help?
- Your character’s arch-enemy is in grave peril and the only person around who can save him is your character. Does your character let the enemy die or save his life?
- Your character has been grossly betrayed by a close friend or family member. Does your character forgive, seek revenge, or walk away?
Notice that all these scenarios test the character’s integrity. This is a great way to get a handle on what kinds of choices your character makes. Remember: people are not perfect and characters needn’t be either. The most interesting characters are easy to relate to, and that means they are flawed in some way.
Exercise #3: Monologue
Monologues are a great way to get inside your character’s head, especially if the story you’re writing will be in third person. This is your chance to let your character’s voice be heard.
Write a piece in first person from your character’s perspective. Choose a general theme for the monologue and start writing in the character’s voice. Some ideas for themes:
- The character is relating a significant event from his or her past: the loss of a loved one, a major life transition, or one of those everyday moments that change everything or stay with you forever.
- The character is faced with a serious challenge or decision and is discussing the options and what the effects of either choice might be.
- The character is in the middle of an emotional crisis and is overcome by grief, rage, envy, or some other intense feelings.
In a monologue, you can include action cues, but try to write them into the dialogue. For instance, if the character starts crying, make that evident through the narrative. If you’re feeling really brave (or if you’re an actor at heart), try recording yourself reading and acting out the monologue. That will add another dimension and allow your character’s speech, intonation, and inflection to come through.
How to Use These Exercises
Try to pinpoint any areas where you’ve stepped in and taken over. Maybe your character said something that you normally or frequently say. Or perhaps the character did something that is out of character and reflects your behavior more than the character’s behavior. You can edit and revise until you feel your piece has truly captured your character’s attitude and personality.
Later, when you’re working on your story, you can revisit these fiction writing exercises to see if there are any clues about your character that you want to use. You may also use these exercises as you’re writing a story to help you get a better grasp on your characters.
As always, the most important thing when working through creative writing exercises is to have fun, and keep writing.