An Exercise In Character
Start with the following set up: How do you feel about:
Then write down five items — baseball, maybe. Clint Eastwood movies. Italian food. Throw in one or two hot-button subjects like immigration or capital punishment.
Then force all of your characters to answer them. All characters, all questions.
Try to steer clear of the likes it/hates it/doesn’t care paradigm. Don’t just say: Loves baseball, hates Clint movies, rarely eats Italian food. Let your characters tell you what they think:
- Your protagonist loves baseball, especially the Orioles. He remembers his first game at Camden Yard, when his dad almost caught a foul ball,but it skipped over the railing.
- He can’t stand Clint Eastwood movies because he thinks Dirty Harry is a fascist. He prefers the cinema of Ingmar Bergman — quiet and introspective.
- He doesn’t get much Italian food because he grew up on Air Force food, following his dad around when he was a kid. And boy, the stories he could tell you about moving around the world …
Don’t be afraid of controversy. These are your characters’ opinions, not your own. This is why you should have a controversial question in the mix. Your characters might not be real people, but they need to feel real to us while we experience them. Like a dream. As simulations of real people, they need to have real-people opinions. And people feel strongly on matters like capital punishment, assisted suicide, flag burning, and Guantanamo Bay. And baseball.
Let your characters duke it out. Let them disagree. Hell, they’re not real anyway, let them kill each other over it. Just get them to open up.
What’s fun about this exercise is that it affords you surprises. You were just asking about baseball and suddenly your hero is talking about time with his dad. This exercise forces you to think and take control, but it also forces you to listen. Let your characters be true. If your main guy used to be a Marine, he’s going to really oppose flag burning; but his girlfriend, a journalist, is adamant about the right to free speech and expression. What, after all, she asks, are the Marines fighting for?
That’ll get them talking. Just make sure you listen to them. Our characters always know more than we do about who they are.
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