A literary element that significantly develops a story is characterization. A well written character can have a lasting impression on a reader (i.e. Holden Caulfield in Cather in the Rye, Jay Gatsby in the Great Gatsby, or Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. It wasn’t necessarily the themes or the literary structure that made these novels memorable classics, but many readers could visualize the characters, sometimes responding strongly (positively or negatively) towards them. The job of a writer is to create convincing characters, physically and mentally. Readers are more interested and entertained when they can hear, see, relate, or even feel repulsed by a character. Unfortunately, if a writer does not have a solid understanding or foundation of his characters, the story unravels, it loses credibility and readers are often uninterested and unengaged.
Similar to the way actors use method acting (studying them, speaking like them, getting into their minds) is similar to the way writers shape their characters. I’m not suggesting that writers begin living like their characters but some exercises and brainstorms are needed to help the writer create a well developed character. This is very helpful for me when I’m stuck in a story and writer’s block begins to form. I take a break, analyze my protagonist (or any character) and I begin one of the character exercises and it usually helps with kicking the stubborn block to the curb.
For those wanting additional practices to help develop characterization, I’ve listed a few exercises that have helped me. Some are from teachers,some are from books, and others I’ve created. Hope you find one that is useful and feel free to share your response to the exercises in the comment box.
1. If you were to look in your character’s trash can, what would you see? ( called Garbology)
2. If you were to ask your character 10 questions? What would they be and how would they respond?
3. Write a stream of consciousness for your character
4. Quickly jot down what makes your character
- get a lump in the throat
5. Imagine being in your character’s closet. What would you see?
6. What kind of music does your character listen to? How does the character dance?
7. Your character is in an interview or party, how does he/ she behave?
8. Fill in the blank: ___________________(character’s name) is a __________ (adj.) ____-year-old ________ (noun) who wants ____________.
9. What does your character do for a living? Take us through the day of the character. What does he do, say and think?
10. What kind of car does your character drive? Describe the car in detail. Have the character look at his car and what would he say about it? How would he drive it?
The purpose of the exercises is not to include every detail in the story, unless that is your intention. However, the purpose of the exercises is to help writers visually shape and mold a character, knowing them so well that the character can ‘literary’ come to life and hopefully engage the attention and emotions of the reader to continue reading.