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Write Way: Building a Character

Jesse's Nuggets:

  • A solid cast of characters is key to a good story.

  • Know your character inside and out.

  • To do this, put your character in the middle of different hypothetical situations and consider how he/she might react.

Immitation is the best form of flattery. It's a cliche statement, for sure, but it's also a very true one in many ways. For writers, in particular, we immitate a lot. I'd call us scoundrels and thieves, but this is a pro-writing blog, so we'll use "immitate" and "borrow" as the verbs.

When I read great writing, or even hear discussions in class, it's not uncommon for me to write down a phrase or sentence I like. That way I can look at it later and try to figure out why it works and what makes it ring. Not joking, guys, I have a Google Doc called "Ear Candy" that's just phrases I've snatched without any added context, just because I like how they sound.

So that's an example of a writer "borrowing" the thoughts of others.

Here's another:

When I was in a screenwriting class, we had a long discussion about how to come up with a strong character. I'll be the first to admit that it's not easy by any stretch of imagination. There's a fine balance between flat, annoying, likeable, and over-the-top.

That's when one of my favorite writing professors suggested what he called the "bar fight method," and it has worked so well for me that I want to share it with you.

Just as there are hundreds of different kinds of people, characters are just as diverse of a group. They look, act, and think differently. So the bar fight method works like this: no matter if the character is the lead protagonist or a minor supporting role, put the character in the middle of a hypothetical barfight and imagine what he/she would do: jump in on the action? Call for help? Rob the bar as the distraction ensures? Run away? Record the brawl? Play some mobile Fortnite, unphased?

The point of the exercise is to help you understand who the character is as a person, and once you are that acquinted with the character in the barfight, you can pull him or her from the hypothetical situation and drop him or her right into your own work.

The barfight method is a great way to do this, and you don't have to use a barfight (I've never set foot in a bar, so take this with a grain of salt): put the character in a classroom of twenty kindergarteners, take your character to the mall, or maybe drop him or her in the middle of a football game. The point is finding a hypothedical situation that sheds light on who the character truly is and what makes him or her tick.

The best writer's usually know more about their characters than their best friends. The jury's still out on whether or not that's sad commentary on our social lives, but at least one verdict is in: good characters need to be so complicated that they're reflective of our own lives, because people too are very complicated.

Challenge: Come up with your own character, make him/her wacky or serious, and then drop him/her in the middle of a bar fight. Write 250 words in first person POV about the character's interaction with the fight, and be sure to focus on thoughts and actions.


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