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.  

Posted in Exercises

Exercise: Impressions and Perceptions

When meeting someone for the first time, your first impression may or may not be right. The same goes for characters. Like real people, characters don’t always perceive each other correctly. Sometimes we can think of someone as ‘bossy’ when they’re just trying to be helpful. That expands far beyond first impressions.

As an exercise: List each character and how they view the others in your story. Consider what causes this impression and how it’s different from others’ views on the same character.  

Posted in character

Character Development

Characters are a mix of different things. Strengths, flaws and quirks can all combine to make a unique and whole character that readers can connect and engage with. Unfortunately for the writer, getting those mixes to work together isn’t easy.

Strengths are easy enough to understand. These are the places your character excels. This isn’t just in skills either, but in personality traits. Your characters will develop their own personality throughout the course of the story. They’ll show loyalty, cleverness, and even bravery.

Characters also show flaws however. Again, these aren’t just skills where they’re weak, but flaws of, well, character. Perhaps they’re gullible, or they lie a little too easily. Their strengths don’t cover all of their personality traits and what strengths don’t cover, their flaws should.

Both flaws and strengths go a pretty long distance when it comes to character development. There are numerous ways to play strengths and flaws off one another to make a character memorable and unique. In my earlier post on flaws I brought up the Mary Sue character. Pretty, popular and lovable. All positive strengths. But to make her flawed and less of a Mary Sue and more into a rounded character, it helps to make give her weak points. She’s pretty because she’s vain. Popular because she’s a social chameleon. Lovable because it’s hard not to love someone who’s pretty and who compliments everyone, even if those compliments mean nothing.

While both strengths and flaws handle personality however, character quirks can help your readers visualize the character and how they should look and act. Quirks are often little habits we don’t think about. These might be bad habits of nail biting, or shuffling our feet. They can also be other habits, like smiling often or carrying a few extra items on them just in case.

When developing quirks, it helps to consider their backstory. Backstory can also help you flesh out their personality traits. Someone who grew up in a neglectful household might tend to act out more to get the attention they’re craving—making them have a tendency to shout, or to dress outrageously. This lends itself to being the frontal leader always up for a bad idea or a good game of chance. It also leads itself to being temperamental and overly critical.

By contrast, someone who grew up in a supportive household might be more of a social butterfly. They might be a little more likely to compliment others, and be suited to hanging back to provide moral support for endeavors. They’re also likely the ones that know how to cut the deepest and might not be above selling their friends out.

Posted in Exercises, writing

Exercise: Defining Unique Characters

Characters are people, and like people, they should have unique qualities to them that help them stand apart from anyone around them. This might be a bad habit, or a particular turn of phrase, but something should help your characters stand out. A quirk or a habit they have.

Building these quirks and habits doesn’t need to be hard. It also makes characterization easier when you have a bank of features to fall back on for each character.

As an exercise: To help you build a bank of features, make a list of characters you want to flesh out more and answer these questions:

  • What’s one bad habit they have?
  • What’s one item they always have on them?
  • What do they call their grandparents, aunts, uncles and parents? Which set of grandparents gets fun names like Grammy and Gramps, and which ones get Grandad and Grandmom?
  • What is their favorite treat?
  • What do they do when they’re nervous? (Think about this one carefully, some people stammer, others fidget, and some people even flush when they’re nervous. Your characters should reflect this.)
  • How do they react to being shouted at suddenly? (Again, think about this, but don’t forget to reflect on their background. Someone who’s been abused will react very differently to someone who’s grown up in a safe, noisy household).
  • What are they likely to collect? Books, stamps, figurines, coins, stuffed animals, etc.
  • What do they usually say to greet someone?
  • What do they say when they’re saying goodbye to a friend?
  • How do they communicate affection without speaking?