I would like to introduce you to Desiree Villena. A writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with the world’s best publishing resources and professionals. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction, writing short stories, and giving (mostly) solicited advice to her fellow writers. You can check out Reedsy at Twitter / Instagram.
There are two crucial pillars that hold up a good novel: first, there must be a compelling plot, and second, there must be nuanced characters who undergo this journey. Plot goes hand-in-hand with the central conflict and its resolution, so these elements are often intertwined!
Of course, not every story requires an examination of the deepest crevices of a character’s soul — but the complex layers of a protagonist often still bubble to the surface, even when they’re not explicitly explored. Just as a charismatic and thoughtful person charms others, well-developed characters are irresistible to readers, literary agents, and publishers alike.
So how can you craft characters who will feel believable, evoke sympathy, and rope your readers in? There’s no one single way to achieve this, but the three exercises I’ll be sharing with you below can get you thinking about the many facets of a round character.
1. Let your protagonist win the lottery
This is a common thought experiment when thinking about the question: “What do you want to do with your life?” Before we get distracted by questioning our own raison d’être, let’s consider how this exercise works.
Assume the prize for hitting the jackpot is hefty — so big that physiological security is no longer a remote concern for your character. Without having to worry about survival, what would your character do with their money and, more importantly, their time?
What they choose to do has profound implications for their personality, their aspirations, and their skills. If your character decides to use that money to open a pottery shop, they must be somewhat entrepreneurial and industrious. They might be passionate about pottery, or they’re perhaps less aware of social issies than wider society, considering the fact that they didn’t choose to funnel their resources to a charitable cause. This exercise might also flag up certain areas of specialty you have to research, if you want it included in the story.
The decision of how to use this prize also opens up options regarding their interests and background, e.g. whether they’ve studied this art before, or if it was part of their family history or business. In any case, it’s fun to imagine this kind of scenario, since there are so many possibilities available.
You can frame this writing exercise as an interview of the character by a news outlet, or a conversation the character has with a close friend, outlining their plan. And of course, not every story setting has a lottery, so you can tweak the prompt to suit your needs (maybe your character unknowingly dug up a pot of gold) — just to make it feel more realistic, even if you don’t end up including their “lottery plan” in your actual story.
2. Trap them somewhere alone
In a modern setting, your protagonist might get trapped in a broken elevator — or, if you really want to push your character to the limit, perhaps a crashing plane. In a sci-fi setting, the place could be a lonely and malfunctioning spacecraft (think The Martian). In a medieval setting, it could be a random sinkhole in the middle of an empty forest.
What you want to do in this scenario is the reverse of exercise #1: you want to remove practically all possibilities from your character and see how they react. Are they angry, or are they anxious? Is your character debilitated by the seriousness of the circumstances, or is their brain whirring, trying to find a solution? If they’re working on a course of action, what skills do they have to come up with and realize this plan?
Even if they’re not being uncannily resourceful and clear-headed, you can delve into what’s going on in your protagonist’s mind. Who and what are they thinking of, now that they’re coming dangerously close to death? Are there any regrets? Do they have certain memories that make this situation especially traumatic, or escape more difficult?
If you’re up for a challenge, try weaving in the emotional or psychological entrapments your character feels into your story. Let the physical space be a metaphor for the obstacles your character faces in life. This way you can explore both the mannerisms and inner thoughts of your protagonist, and the internal struggle that builds onto the central conflict of your story.
3. Create a social media account for your character
Now I know this doesn’t make logical sense in every scenario — 15th-century knights don’t usually stop on their way to battle to post a quick Instagram story — but it’s an entertaining exercise to develop the social life and behaviors of your protagonist. And of course, you don’t have to actually create an account on Facebook or Twitter; just describing it will suffice.
What can you include in this description? Well, anything, really. Is this account used to keep in touch with close friends, or is it for a practical purpose like book marketing? (Meta!) How many friends or followers do they have? Does your character interact a lot, and what kind of content do they share?
Indeed, just by picking a social media platform, you’ve already determined some things about the character. If it’s Facebook, your protagonist might be the eloquent and argumentative type — as opposed to Twitter, where the character limit means Tweets are more concise and oftentimes quippier.
Feel free to experiment with the tone as well. Though this prompt probably gets you thinking about a contemporary setting, if your character’s from another era, you can definitely use the appropriate vocabulary and language style. (You might know of fanfiction social media accounts where the fans roleplay as book characters on Twitter — this is somewhat similar to that.) Here’s your chance to work on the voice of your character.
And that’s the nice thing about exercises like these: they don’t just make you ponder all the details you’d normally include in a character profile, they also let you experiment with your portrayal of your characters in a fun and creative way. Hopefully these exercises give you some inspiration for writing characters who are hard to forget!
I want to say a massive thank you to Desiree. I’m sure you’ll agree she writes excellent post and that Reedsy is a valuable writing resource. I know I’ll be checking out their posts. Once again, You can follow Reedsy at Twitter / Instagram.
Thanks for stopping by, until next time, Much Love.