Friday, December 18, 2009

Test Drive: 10 Steps: Step 1 and 2

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These are listed in as the first two steps in the book, but often times you see them combined in a basic character building checklist. Since they fit well together, I'm combining them here into one lesson.

So, let's get started with . . . .

The Question.

You've seen these before, the checklist of character attributes. I've filled out these charts before, but I rarely remember the details come writing time and to tell the truth they bore the heck out of me. But the book adds a twist by asking one essential question. One I never thought of asking.

Why. Why is this important.

The answer to this question directly pertains to your story. It makes you think what effect this attribute has not only how your character acts and reacts to life, but how it affects the story. So for every bit of physical description, ask yourself that question: Why is this important. I think you'll be surprised by what changes and depth develops in your character and your story early on.

In fact, for all steps, that is going to be a question you need to ask and you'll be surprised by how much you get out of it.

Anyway, on to . . .

#1. Physical Description.

The book covers a few primary areas of physical description, which are age, physique (including height, weight, etc), face, and distinguishing characteristics. Instead of just following those listed, I suggest finding a character chart online or making your own. Charts aside, though, there are a couple attributes I want to touch on from the book, ones that shouldn't be missed.

First Impression. What is the first impression your character makes as he walks into room? What attribute is the first noticed? How does it make others feel about him or her.

Distinguishing Characteristics. This is the unique aspects to your character's appearance. Does he have scars? Does she have a tattoo? How about injuries? Where do these characteristics come from, are they genetic based, as a result of an injury or illness, or something your character has deliberately done to themselves?

No matter how entertaining or boring you find the character description charts, the point is clear. Start thinking about the story these attributes tell about your character. For example, age affects how your character reacts, what positions he might hold, or possible sources of conflict--think about a Doogie Howser type character or the reverse, a late comer dealing with a much younger generation of peers. On physique, calloused hands can show your character is used to hard labor or her weight might be a point of contention in your character's life. And so on.

However, don't go overboard on filling out these character charts. If your story shifts as you write, you may wish to change things about your character. Do yourself a favor. If you don't feel strongly about an attribute after you've done this work, don't lock yourself in.

Now that we covered what your character looks like, what about . . .

#2. Profession or Occupation

Just like real life, your character has some occupation or profession to define him. Whether it is stay-at-home parent, being independently wealthy, or a 40-hour a week job, something occupies most of his or her time. This section of the book will focus on that. Again, this is something you can probably find on a character checklist. But remember to keep in mind other aspects about the job--what does the job involve? What does it say about his personality? Are the other characters that are important in the story at his work place? How important is her occupation to the story? To your character?

Some checklists cover the next topic. The book doesn't. So, I'm going to include it here. I'm talking about the . . .

Hobby or Volunteering or Pastime. I'm not a full time writer. I also have a 40-hour week job. Perhaps your character does too--is there something he sees as his vocation? Or maybe she just has a hobby? Maybe she volunteers. Work is work, whether not you get paid for it. What your character does when not working for money can be revealing. What does your character's hobby say about her?

Beyond that, the book covered something interesting that I think is left out of most checklists. That is . . .

Work Ethic. How does he feel about his work? Does he give 100% to it? Or is it to just get by, while he focuses on something else that is true passion? Is this going to change throughout the story?

Personally, I never thought to ask about my character's work ethic. But it is different and possibly revealing, so it doesn't hurt to give a try, right?



Well, that's it for the first two steps. Easy enough, so far. We are starting with basic but useful building blocks, choosing what your character looks like and what he does. More importantly, though, we learned to ask: Why--why is this important. Keeping the lesson in mind, why don't we take a look at some exercises and tricks that will keep things interesting.


The following is a list exercises, tips, and tricks (from the book, other resources, and myself) to get you thinking about the physical description and occupation of your character and to help you define him or her in interesting ways. You don't have to do them all, but I do suggest at minimum doing the exercises listed in the section below.

Main Exercises.

The Checklist. Your first exercise is to find or make a checklist you want to work with and fill it out. Make sure it includes at first impression and occupation. Try to keep it brief and don't be afraid to revise as you learn more about your character. And most importantly, don't forget to ask yourself "Why is this important?".

The write up. Once you got your checklist filled out, write a brief paragraph summarizing the most important bits. Include your "whys". Keep this handy, either in its own file or on a note card for easy reference.

Bonus Exercises.

These are more creative exercises to explore physical character aspects. They get you in story-mode thinking, making you see how your character's physical aspects and occupation affects his life and his choices in the story. You don't have to do all these or any of these, but they can be fun to try. Some of these come from the actual book, some from other resources, and some I just made up. Enjoy!

  • What's your sign? The book posed an interesting exercise related to age. What is your character's horoscope? You can add attributes to your characters personality and relationship compatibility. But what if your novel is not set in the real world--that is, it is of the speculative fiction genre? Well, it can work reverse too. Look up the descriptions of the signs, and you have the idea for personality and relationship conflicts.
  • Future self. Your character meets himself from the future (or the past if he is currently older in story-time). Future Time Character and Present Time Character have had different experiences. Age has had an effect. What effect? How are the two characters different from each other, physically, emotionally, mentally, etc.
  • Beyond the visual. Use your other senses. What is the scent associated with your character--or what is her favorite smell? Does she favor certain textures, or is his skin smooth or rough? And so on.
  • Love poetry. You've all read or read about poetry that glorifies aspects of a lover's body like eyes or hair. Well, here's your chance. Your character is going to write a poem or love letter, no matter how awful, about the beauty of another character.
  • The secret. Let's say your character has been trying to hide a scar or injury. How has he been hiding it? Now, go further on this exercise. Your character's secret characteristic has just been revealed to person he least wanted to know about it. How do both react?
  • Corporate headhunter. Your character has to recruit someone for a job and orientate them.
  • The first job. Your character never worked before, either this is their first job or they lived life in the lap of luxury. What job does he pick? Why? What is his first day like?
  • So what do you do for fun? Your character is bored. Give your character your hobby. Does he like it? Does he hate it? What does he do with it?




Character Charts.

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