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Writing

9 Character Development Exercises for Writing Complex Characters

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 17, 2020 • 4 min read

Before you start your first draft, you should spend some time crafting believable characters and making sure you understand their backstories in addition to their wants and needs. Whether you are working on your sixth novel or screenwriting in your spare time, taking the time to develop your characters will breathe life into your stories and improve your creative writing.

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Why Is Character Development Important?

Without a clear sense of who a character is, what they value, and what they’re afraid of, the reader will be unable to appreciate the significance of plot events, and your story will have less impact. Like real people, fictional characters have hobbies, pets, histories, ruminations, and obsessions. These characteristics inform how a character reacts to and feels about the things that happen to them. It’s essential to your novel that you understand all aspects of your characters so that you are equipped to understand how they may react under the pressures of events they encounter.

9 Character Development Exercises

Good characters are not created overnight. Character building takes time and attention to detail. Luckily there are a few exercises and writing prompts that you can use to get the ball rolling and overcome any writer’s block that’s getting in the way of creating dynamic, fully formed characters. Here are a few exercises to consider:

  1. Think about your character’s favorite pieces of media. A good way to think about your character outside of the context of the story you are writing is to ask yourself what their favorite pieces of media are. Do they have favorite TV shows or movies? Are they a fan of a particular podcast or radio show? How about books? Are they a Harry Potter fan or is Russian literature more their speed? The answers will be informative and help you understand what makes your character tick.
  2. Write a short story about your character at a different age. Take your character out of the context of your story and write a short story or scene about them at a different age. It can be instructive to take an adult character and write a standalone scene about them in high school with a best friend or significant other. Think about how they react to different pieces of information. How would they react to bad news? How would their behavior change as they age?
  3. Draw your character. A fun exercise to generate a more dynamic physical description of your character is to try drawing them. Drawing a character can help elucidate more nuanced details about everything from eye color to body language and help you generate a fuller physical description of your character. Crafting a good character description can be hard, but creating a visual reference point to refer to can make your descriptions come alive.
  4. Create a character profile. Fleshing out a character profile is one of the most common and useful character exercises. A character profile can help you understand what your character wants. It’s a way to list out the personality traits and behaviors of your main character as well as smaller secondary characters.
  5. Write from a character’s perspective. Writing a standalone scene from the first-person point of view of a character is a great way to get inside the character’s head and understand what your character feels. This is an especially useful exercise if your main story is written in third-person, or from the point of view of a different character. Writing in first person can unlock parts of a character’s voice that might otherwise elude you.
  6. Take your characters to dinner. One way to test how developed your characters are is to write a standalone scene with a few of them outside of the context of your story. How do your characters interact with each other during their spare time? If you’ve created strong characters, you should have no problem placing them in other scenarios and channeling their voices. Great characters are dynamic and should be recognizable in a variety of contexts. Take a few of your characters and write a standalone scene where they are all gathered around a table for a group dinner.
  7. Create a character using real people as templates. Referencing real life close friends or family members can help you create interesting characters with idiosyncratic personalities and traits. Spend some time thinking about the qualities that make the people in your life unique and interesting. Think about each one of these traits and how you might incorporate them into your stories and create more interesting characters.
  8. Keep a biography. Keeping a one-page biography of a character’s life can help you reference backstory and keep your facts straight. We should feel like each of your characters has a full life and history outside of your story. Working on a separate biography is a great way of generating material and keeping a record for you to refer to as you write.
  9. Chart your character’s arc beyond your story. Strong characters should have a clear character arc that extends before and after your story. Are there any life-changing events that occur in the lead up to your story? Taking some time to think about your characters' lives just beyond the timeframe of your story can help you have a more complete understanding of what motivates them within your narrative.
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