06 Apr

Character Interview

Posted in Character, Creativity, DIY MFA, Writing

Another technique I use when I need to get to know my characters is the Character Interview.  In this case, I ask a character various questions and then answer them in the voice of the character.  I find this exercise useful even when my novel or short story is written from different point of view (i.e. not that character’s POV in first person).  Even if I only use the character’s voice in dialogue and not in narration, it’s helpful to hear these questions answered from the character’s own perspective.

Some questions I like to ask are:

  • What was your scariest moment?
  • What was your happiest moment?
  • What’s the most dangerous thing you’ve ever done?
  • What is your biggest regret?
  • Who do you love most in the world?
  • What is your most prized possession?
  • Do you have a nemesis? Who?
  • Who was your first love?
  • Where is your favorite place?
  • Who or what makes you feel safe?
  • Who makes you jealous?
  • Who or what makes you feel inadequate?
  • What is your theme song?
  • What is your signature color?
  • What is your favorite season?
  • What is your catch-phrase?
  • What is your pet peeve?
  • List your character’s ten favorite things (Example: raindrops on roses, etc.)

For more interview question ideas, check out these Character Questionnaires from Gotham Writers’ Workshop.

Homework: Answer all these questions quickly in your character’s voice and point of view.  Now go back and choose three answers, and follow-up like you would if you were a reporter doing an interview.  Don’t let your character get away with easy answers.  Dig deep.  Ask who, what, when, where, why and how.  Whenever your character starts to shy away from answering, press him or her further.  Keep asking: “tell me more about that” until you get to the juicy information.

Now I’d like to know: what’s the most surprising thing you learned about your character?  Feel free to dish in the comments.


05 Apr

20 Questions to Create a Character

Posted in Character, Creativity, DIY MFA, Writing, Writing Exercises

Remember that game 20 Questions, where you had to guess what the person was thinking of only by asking yes/no questions?  This exercise uses a similar technique to help you develop a new character or get to know an existing character better.

There are two ways you can use 20 Questions to create or develop a character.

Option A: Take a character you’ve been working with, perhaps one from your current work-in-progress (WIP).  Answer these twenty questions as quickly as possible about your character.  Then write a short scene with that character, using this new-found knowledge.

Option B: (my personal favorite) Use a coin-toss to select one option from each pair.  That’s your character.  Now write.

The 20 Questions are:

  1. Male / Female
  2. Old soul / Young at heart
  3. Left brain / Right brain
  4. Glass half-empty / Glass half-full
  5. City / Country
  6. Big spender / Penny pincher
  7. Loves water / Can’t swim
  8. Glasses / Tattoo
  9. Dogs / Cats
  10. Hybrid car / SUV
  11. Bites nails / Always manicured
  12. Chocolate syrup / Hot sauce
  13. Coffee / Tea
  14. Overgrown garden / Plastic plants
  15. Always tells the truth / Lies when necessary
  16. Organic food / Fast food
  17. Straight hair / Curly hair
  18. Soft-spoken / Loudmouth
  19. PBS / Reality TV
  20. Motto: “Do or die” / “Look before you leap”

This exercise is based on an exercise from the Write Brain Workbook by Bonnie Neubauer.

Homework: Use this technique for one of your existing characters or create a new one.  Now write a short scene with that character, where at least three of these details are revealed.  This can be something completely new or an extension of a piece you’re already writing.


04 Apr

TADA Method of Studying Character

Posted in Character, Creativity, DIY MFA, Reading, Writing

You’ve all probably heard the saying “Show, Don’t Tell” a million times. The trick, of course, is figuring out how.  This is where the TADA method comes in.  I call it the TADA method because when you’re done *TADA!* there’s your character.

TADA deals with the four elements at play in character development that lie within the character herself.  Sure, you can also show us the character by having other characters react to her, or by showing us the contents of her refrigerator, but these do not come from the character herself.  These are all great ways to use the environment as a lens to show us the character, but with TADA we’ll focus on elements that come directly from the character.  These are:  Thought, Action, Dialogue, and Appearance.

To analyze how the author is using TADA with a character, use a Character Compass.  This is a technique where each axis in the compass represents one letter in TADA.  In two easy steps, you get your analysis.

Step 1: Choose a passage to read.  This can be a passage you’re struggling with in your own writing or someone else’s work.  The important thing is to focus on a short passage (short story, one chapter, one scene).  After all, the way the author shows a character can change from chapter to chapter, or scene to scene.

Step 2: Note down how much of each TADA element appears in the passage.   The closer to the edge of the circle, the more of that element we see for that character.  The edge of the circle is the maximum and the center of the circle means that element was used not at all.

Example: The compass diagram shows a passage with a lot of dialogue and action but little emphasis on thought and appearance.

Note that you don’t need a perfectly balanced compass for the scene or story to work.  The purpose of this technique isn’t to force you to use all four elements of TADA, but to help you analyze how you’re using them.  You might do this exercise and realize that you’re much more dialogue-heavy than you thought.  Or maybe you’ll want to add a little more description of the character’s appearance.  Or maybe you’ll keep it just the way it is because the scene works.

The idea is to help you become more aware of how you’re using these four elements in your writing.  The more aware you become, the more you’ll be able to make certain choices on command, rather than by accident.

It’s also important to practice techniques like this when reading work by other writers.  As we’ve mentioned before, as writers we’re not just concerned with what an author is saying (or why for that matter).  What we really care about is how.  Using the Character Compass, we can become more attuned to how our favorite authors develop their characters.

Homework:  Pick a character in a passage you’re reading (focus on a short story or one chapter of a novel).  Read that passage and make a character compass for the character you picked.  Note: This character does not need to be the main character.

If you’d like a suggested passage to read check out Myla Goldberg’s “Going for the Orange Julius”

Did you learn anything about the passage you read that surprised you when you did the Character Compass?  What did you discover?


03 Apr

Image File

Posted in Art, Character, Creativity, DIY MFA

I’d like to start DIY MFA by looking at art because that’s one of the writing tools I use most often, especially when I need to find new characters.  It has taken me a while, but I finally have a small collection of postcards that story ideas for me.  These can be pictures almost always depict people, either going about their daily lives or stuck in bizarre situations.  When there aren’t any people in the images, I try to place myself in that scene and imagine what a character would be doing or thinking in that setting.

Image File Litmus Test:  The picture’s content doesn’t matter.  What matters is that I get a sense that the world of the image extends beyond the canvas or photograph.

Warning:  You need to set some limits for yourself.  Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the same is true for image files.  You could waste hours of precious writing time collecting images of characters you’re never going to use.  This is why I prefer postcards.  Every time I visit a museum or a new city, I take five minutes in a gift shop to buy a few postcards.  At first I had only a handful of images, but over time the collection has grown, and without much time, money or effort spent.

Tip:  If you have family or friends who travel, ask them to send you a postcard with a “picture that tells a story.”  This way, your image file can grow even if you’re not collecting the images yourself.  They’ll get sent to you!  Also, it will be interesting to see what images they choose.

Here are a couple of pictures to help you get started.

Eugene Atget, Staircase, Montmartre (1921)
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Juvisy, France (1938)
Karen Halverson,  Furnace Creek, Death Valley, California (1992)
Edward Hopper, Movie (1939)
Archibald John Motley Jr., Nightlife (c.1943)
Pierre Auguste Renoir,  Lunch at the Restaurant Fournaise (1875)
Gerhard Richter, Woman Descending the Staircase (1965)
Sheron Rupp, Trudy in Annie’s Sunflower Maze, Amherst, MA (2000)
August Sander, Children, Westerwald (1920)
John Singer Sargent, Fumee D’Ambre Gris (1880)

Homework: Find 5 additional images for your image.  These can be postcards, pictures clipped from magazines or even images you captured with a camera or sketchbook.  The important thing is that all five images help us find a character.

Are there any artists or photographers you recommend who are especially good at capturing such images?  Any must-haves I should add to my image file?


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