Exercises for Fleshing Out Interesting Characters
Characters are the most essential part of any story. The more interesting the characters, the more compelling the story will be.
This isn’t always easy to do. We tend to default to making characters like ourselves, or variations on the same themes. From time to time, we all need something to send our minds in new directions.
Here are some exercises designed to do just that.
Fear, Theme, and Conflict
Develop your character’s worst fear. Make sure that it’s something that connects into the central theme of your story, so that when it comes up it reinforces that fear. Then work out how that fear connects into the main conflict of your plot. Does fear of being alone drive the character to panic and damage relationships? Does fear of heights stand in their way during a series of rooftop chases and aerial adventures? Make sure that the fear will come out.
Internal conflicts make for more interesting characters. The internal conflict can be a moral dilemma, such as choosing between loyalty and principles. It can be something holding them back, such as fear that prevents a would-be performer getting on stage. Maybe fear of success leads an artist to undermine their own work.
Think of ten different internal conflicts that your character could face. Then pick one of the less obvious ones and see where it takes them.
What’s It Got in Its Pockets?
The things we carry can say a lot about us. They show readers who your characters are, but they can also inspire you in creating characters.
Pick a dozen random objects, stuff that’s lying around near you, is in pictures in books and magazines, or that just springs to mind. Now work out what sort of character carries those things. Why do they have cigarettes but not a lighter? What do they write in that notebook? Why is there always a spoon in their bag? Even ordinary items, taken out of context, can lead to interesting questions.
Different People, Different Places
Real people aren’t consistent. We change our behaviour depending upon where we are and who we’re with.
Try describing your character’s behaviour in a variety of different places. Try the mundane, such as a family dinner; the challenging, such as when faced with a dangerous accident; the outlandish, like a volcano island; the awkward, like a date gone wrong. Think about the ways they talk and act in these different circumstances and what that tells you about them. Then apply that to the situations in your story.
Something to Disagree With
Give your character an opinion that you yourself strongly disagree with. It could be cultural, political, moral, or cover any other area of life, but make sure it’s something that you care about.
Now think about why the character has that different opinion. What has shaped them differently from you? How would they defend their opinion? Why does it matter to them? How does it shape them in other ways? Forcing yourself to think from a perspective other than your own should strengthen your ability to write more varied and interesting viewpoints.
Start With Someone You Know
Try creating a character based on someone you know. Not their name and appearance, but the way they act, the way they talk, the way they view the world. Use little details such as figures of speech to flesh out the character.
Now take those characteristics and disguise them while retaining the variety they provide. How can you make a verbal tick that’s like your friend but different? If they’re passionate about something, what could an imaginary character be passionate about in a similar way? Follow this path until you have a character who feels every bit as real and interesting as that person, but who no-one would recognise as them.
The Power of Passion
The things we’re passionate about are the things that draw others to us. Think about your character’s grand passions – people, hobbies, causes, careers. Take their deepest passion and work out how it affects their life. Bind it deeply into your story so that it emerges again and again, making your character burn brightly.
None of these exercises in themselves will make perfect characters. But they’ll help you to think about characters in new ways. The more angles you look at your characters from, the more interesting, varied, and convincing they will become.