STAYING ENGAGED FOREVER: Test your characters

We always wonder about our plot: Is it funny enough? Exciting enough? Grave enough? Puzzling and suspenseful enough? But really little of this matters before you sit down to explore your characters.

Usually, the best thing a plot does is enliven your characters.

Even plot heavy stories like detective stories and superhero battles (the best ones anyway), have great lively characters.

I had a friend who is terrific at autobiographical humor, ask me to read two short scenes from a story she was writing. I read them. They were playful and funny and I told her they were good. She seemed disappointed. She really sweated for them, wanted them to be brilliant, and was perhaps a little afraid to keep going.

I told her that with good characters and the self discipline to sit down, you can write dozens more of these effortlessly. The key is having good characters, and injecting them with interesting enough new situations. You’ve probably heard it before: the characters write themselves.

We created a half-dozen characters in chapter 3, and maybe more on our own. In the next exercise, let’s throw them into some situations and explore.


1. Make a list of potential situations that any character might find themselves in, like having an upset stomache or losing their favorite childhood toy or running from a comet heading towards the earth. Imagine each of your characters in this situation. How would they react? Make a silly chart. This is just game playing.

Kundera again: “Making a character alive means getting to the bottom of his existential problem.”

There are probably 8 million ways to push and press at our characters psychological make-ups. Let’s imagine up a few more:

2. if your character were in a psychiatrist’s office, what would he/she say? More importantly, how different is it from his/her real problems?

3. Write a typical to-do list for your character. What’s a typical to-do list for him or her look like? Let this be the beginning of a story. Let ideas and images come to you about one of the items on that list, or maybe the entire list. Keep in mind the elements of drama and poetry we’ve considered... What’s hiding in that to-do list?

4. Go backwards. Create the to-do list first, then the character. Ask yourself, who would create a list like this?

All of this adds to your character’s store. File it, find the right time to use it or play with it. Build it out.

5. Steal ideas for games from anywhere- how about the chorus of a Bruce Springsteen song, Born to Run? What would our characters say people like them are Born to Do?

-Die like dogs
-Serve our masters
-Be beautiful monkey wrenches in the corporate machine!
-Be on stage!
-Fight over girls

6. Create a monologue for your character, where he or she describes something that we’ve already seen. Watch for and allow differences. Let the character act physically. Get out of your chair and act it out yourself as you go.

7. Put your character through exercise #1 in this book (see my version, below.)

You could make playful games like this forever.


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