WRITING EXERCISE: The moment you walked into the room…

Who fancies a wee characterisation exercise?

Whether you’re making up a totally brand new fictional person, or developing a cast member from an existing work-in-progress, this exercise is a quick ‘n’ clever way of getting to know a little more about your character on various levels, eg:

  • The image of themselves they want to project to the world
  • The image they *actually* present to the world
  • How they adapt their behaviour to different social situations

Even better, you can re-use this exercise again and again with different characters, or use the same character in a variety of different circumstances (see that last point above), because – as in life – their reactions will constantly be changing according to the particulars of scene you’ve put them into.

Without further ado, here’s whattado:

Step 1:

Pick yourself a character. If you’re not using a character from one of your existing stories, grab a picture prompt below, give ’em a name, and move onto Step 2.

Four images containing photos of interesting characters. A group of brightly dressed young adults sitting on a wall. A thoughtful looking child with long hair with the sun behind them. A futuristic looking young man in wraparound sunglasses in front of a pink and blue neon sign. A woman in a ruffly blue dress and a red hairpiece and shoes striding across a garden wheeling a cool box behind her.
Four photos containing a range of interesting characters. A group of very young Russian soldiers in coats and fluffy hats holding guns. A young  man standing at the top of a steep street holding a small ginger kitten. Two brides laughing in front of a graffiti covered wall. A woman in a vigil crowd holding candles.

Step 2:

Set a timer for 20 mins and get writing. Your task here is to describe your character as if you’re seeing them for the first time – from an external perspective (it can be omniscient third person, or inside another observer’s head, whatever you prefer).

IMPORTANT NOTE: We’re not looking for a head-to-toe physical description of eye colour, hairstyle, cut of trouser etc here. These are mostly irrelevant and extraneous when it comes to getting into the psychology of your character.

Instead, think about: 

  • How do they walk into the room? With confidence? Do they sneak in, hoping not to be seen? Do they command the space or melt into the crowd?
  • How do they make other people feel? Wary? Comforted? Unsettled? Are they easy to talk to? Or do they stare a little too long and kill the conversation?
  • Do they have any tics or habits or turns of phrase? Much more interesting than the colour of their hair is how their mental state is reflected in habitual idiosyncrasies… Do they chew their hangnails or do a little cough before they speak? How do these tics give us clues about how they’re feeling?
  • How do they manipulate their status with other characters? We all play with status, constantly, whether we’re aware of it or not. We sympathise to show others we’re on their side. We challenge people to show we know more than them. We show attentiveness to make people like us. We get passive aggressive to show we’re pissed off but don’t want to overtly fight about it. How does your char alter their behaviour to stay above or below other characters in terms of status – and how do these subtle shifts help them get what they want?

This exercise is a great one to do with new and old characters as it forces you to consider how they interact with other characters on a subconscious level as well as a conscious one. So much of our interactions are non-verbal – via body language, expression, stance, status-play, tone of voice and on and on and on… Plus, how your character intends to come across is often quite different to how they actually appear to others.

Now go write. Stick your character into a bunch of different rooms/spaces/situations and see how they fare.

Jo Gatford

Jo Gatford

Jo is a writer who procrastinates about writing by writing about writing. She looks exactly like her avatar.
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