Go Fishing with Your Villains
And other character development exercises
Us fiction writers like to say we’re in the business of creating empathy. Getting imaginatively inside the lives and minds of people different from ourselves the way reading fiction allows us to do is a powerful, sometimes life-changing thing for sure, and I won’t argue with anyone who says we need more of that kind of imagination and empathy these days. I will say that the magic happens for fiction writers as well as for their readers. I think of the way you can see Mark Twain learning over the course of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to love Jim as a human being, rather than using his character as a prop for a political stance. I think of the story author Nancy Rawles tells about working to find the humanity in a character of hers who was an unlikable Southern white supremacist man. She says she imagined going fishing with him, which he loved to do, and imagined asking him questions in the quiet of his little boat on the early morning lake. He didn’t stop being the racist villain of her story, but he stopped being a caricature.
I believe you can’t write believable characters if you don’t love them. You can hate them, but you also have to love them. And to love them, you have to get to know them. Enter character development exercises!
Character Development Questions:
I like to do a fairly standard character sheet with my students when we work on fiction writing, and they enjoy it too. Even the early story writers usually like this exercise, so don’t be afraid to try it with kids as young as seven or eight. We begin to think about our characters, using questions like the following as a prompt. (This is more questions than would be useful for younger kids, so pick and choose. )
~ What objects make you think of them?
~ What are their distinctive physical traits?
~ How do they sit, walk, and move?
~ How do they smell?
~ What do they do with their hands?
~ What gestures do they make?
~ How do they dress?
~ What is their voice like?
~ What sayings or phrases or exclamations do they say a lot?
~ How do you (or other characters) feel around them?
~ What are their talent? Vices?
~ What are they bad at?
~ What disappoints/frustrates/angers/saddens them?
~ What do they fear?
~ What are they proud of?
~ What/who do they love?
~ What are their secrets?
These questions aim to help get below the shallow kinds of descriptions kids tend to write about their characters, “she had beautiful long brown hair and green eyes and was pretty tall for a twelve-year-old.” Kids, like television, tend to make their characters gorgeous, but often lacking complexity.
Some More Character Development Ideas:
Write about a person you know, using the character questions as prompts. Then turn those notes into a poem or short description.
Write about your main character in a story you’re writing, using the character questions as prompts.
Write about side characters, especially ones you’re having trouble getting to know.
Draw your characters.
Sit down with your characters somewhere they would go and interview them.
Even if the character won’t be the narrator, try letting them just talk on the page for a while. Let them tell their side of the story. This is especially helpful if you’re having trouble understanding an antagonist’s side of things.
After you get to know your characters, ask yourself:
~ What do they want most?
~ What would be the worst thing that could happen to them?
~How could they get in the most trouble?
~ What is the most interesting problem they could face?
~ Who and what are standing in their way?
~ What inside them is getting in their way?
Questions like that help plot arise from characters.
Now that you know your characters a little better, try writing a scene where we can see them in action. Let us see and hear them as they deal with people and problems. You’ll get to know your characters more along the way, so get into the action. Have fun!