Posted in Exercises

Exercise: Describe Yourself

I’m one of those people that freezes whenever someone asks me about myself. Questionnaires, applications and interviews where the phrase ‘describe yourself in three words’ make me cringe.

Which is exactly what we’re doing today: describing ourselves.

Specifically, you should describe yourself as a character in a story. This should go beyond just physical descriptions but also include things like your voice and any tics you might have. Mannerisms can tell us a lot about character.

Go for it! Set a timer and in ten minutes come back and share your self-description.

Posted in character

Using Negative Traits for Arcs

Like real people, characters should have flaws. After all, Nobody is perfect and your characters need to be Somebody. Hence, they need to have flaws and negative traits to help balance out their strengths. Having a negative trait in their character also helps provide conflict and gives you as the writer a place to build their arc.

Take a look at your character’s negative flaws and ask questions. Are they quick-tempered? Stingy? Vain? Perhaps they have low self-esteem or they care too much about what others think. Once you know where their shortcomings are, ask yourself how it impacts their ability to resolve the main conflict. Does an inability to listen to others cause a miscommunication? Does their timidity cause them to keep quiet when they have a perfect solution?

Their flaws should impact them in some way.  Use those negative traits as an obstacle to getting what they want. This forces your character into needing to make a change and gives them a motivation for their character arc.

As the arc progresses, ramp up the problems caused by that negative trait. As the results become worse and worse, your character is forced to try a new tactic to get what they want. This reinforces the idea that their negative trait needs to change.

Not every character arc will end with a complete turn around. Change is hard to do, especially when it’s something like a bad habit or a negative trait. Rather than forcing your character through a full reimagining by the end of the story, let that negative trait remain—but tone it back. Show they can still be just as stubborn, stingy or selfish as they were, but that their instances of doing so are lessened by the impact of their past actions.  

Posted in Exercises

Exercise: From the Other Side

For this exercise, we’re taking a look at some non-fiction writing. There’s no need to go digging for an autobiography or grab that reference book on nineteenth-century swords. Rather, today we’re getting into some personal writing. I hope you’re ready for an uncomfortable exercise.

Today, your challenge is to write about someone you don’t like. Maybe that’s an old schoolteacher who always seemed a little too harsh on you. Maybe it’s a family member who clearly favored your sibling or your cousin. A former friend that ultimately ended up not being such a great friend.  Someone you know personally and perhaps have known for some time.

To start, take a few minutes and write about one incident with them that firmly reinforces your feelings towards them. Write it from your own point of view and try to recapture every detail you can remember about that particular incident or person and how awful it was.

Finished?

Now, write about that incident a second time from their perspective. This time you should try to keep in mind that they had a reason for what they did. No one believes themselves to the villain, so try to find a reason they would use to say they were in the right. Think back to those details that made that experience awful for you and think of how they might have shaped that moment for your chosen person. What in that scenario makes you the antagonist?

The whole point of the exercise is actually to help you figure out how antagonists and perspective work, and to force you to write from outside your comfort zone. This is one piece you don’t have to share with anyone, but really dig in and see what makes your chosen person tick. Why do they act the way they do towards you?

Also keep in mind while doing this that what people believe can skew how they feel about things. Whoever you’re writing about has a reason—but that reason doesn’t have to be a good reason, just one they believe in.

When you’re done, take a short break if you need to. Come back later and compare the two pieces. They should be about the same moment in time, but how different are they from each perspective? Think about how hard it was for you to see it from the other person’s eyes. You don’t have to agree with them, but you do need to understand that they have a reason for what they do.

This is not intended to be an easy exercise. It’s intended to force you to look from another perspective, from another view.

Posted in Exercises, Prompts

Exercise: Character Signatures

Graphology is the study of handwriting and the personality traits it reveals about the writer. While it’s a lot of fun to look at your own handwriting, for a writer, it also offers a chance to develop our characters off the page.

As an exercise: Sign your character’s name. Try out different styles and think about how they might write. Would they use thick, bubbly letters, or spikier, slanted letters?

Posted in worldbuilding, writing

Exposition

In storytelling, exposition has two meanings. The first is the opening portion of your plot arc. That is, where your story begins. The second is the one I want to touch on today.

The second use of exposition is the information needed for a story to make sense. That second part covers a lot of ground. It includes character backstories, worldbuilding, societal rules, legal definitions and a host of other things that vary from story to story. Exposition is important because it’s what makes characters, plots and settings work properly. It’s all the information going on behind the scenes that helps a story progress logically.

The big problem with exposition is that while your characters might know it, your readers might not. You don’t need to explain your own childhood to yourself, but for some stories, not knowing a character’s history causes bumps in the road. How do you get exposition out of the way?

Explain it. I know it seems obvious and you’re probably about to shout ‘INFO DUMP’ at me but hold on a second. Yes, info dumps are a way of getting information on the page. Arguably both sci-fi and fantasy are awful at this because then tend to rely heavily on worldbuilding, so there’s always a lot of information. It’s a common trope to have a prologue which details the history of the world, or of a particular set of characters, or that recounts some prophecy or the other.

However, you can reasonably explain information that’s relevant to the story by having your characters discuss it, or by having them realize what they’ve believed or known about that information is wrong. When using the dialogue option, you can offer back-and-forth questions to cover the usual who, what, why, when and how as needed. By having an internal realization, you make the exposition an active part of the story, rendering it a vital part of that character’s arc.

Imply it. Just as you’re not likely to think about your entire history without something that triggers a recollection, your characters likely won’t either. They may however, reference their personal histories when interacting with other characters.

An example of this is when dealing with a character that’s been disgraced for some reason. They may refer to a particular portion of time as ‘before’. Those characters that don’t know what happened can then ask ‘before what’ which gives you an opportunity to either relate it, or to tease it out a bit at a time. A bonus to this one: you give your readers more of a reason to invest in a character.

Similarly, when dealing with world or event information, your characters aren’t likely to have textbook perfect recollection of every single event. Could they possibly give you a good summary of what happened in the last war? Maybe, if they paid attention and had the chance and ability to learn about what happened. Or, maybe they know more about what sort of plants are likely to react with negative magical affects than they know about relations between differing duchies.

Exposition in storytelling is a necessary and vital part of understanding the story, but delivering that information shouldn’t get in the way of the story itself. When and where possible, use it to deepen a conflict: think about if your rival characters get into arguments about who’s right about the environmental risks of paper straws. Also consider your characters and their history. It may take time for your characters to open up and explain, letting you drop little hints and hooks through their actions and reactions.