I moved around and changed schools often after my parents’ divorce. My mother never wanted to stay in one place for long. It was difficult to continuously start over and make new friends, so I found solace within books—those friends I could take with me. During one particularly difficult journey, I remember picking up Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine. To my young mind the characters seemed to jump off the page and travel with me. Even the characters I grew to hate had their own unique characteristics and goals. They were real, and I could see, feel, and hear them as easily as I could see the cars we passed on the highway.
Unfortunately, I have found that creating that magic and depth within characters is easier said than done. Especially when I am writing a nonfiction story, and do not know what motives my “enemies” have, it can be easy to create a one-dimensional character. It’s also easy to fall into the trap of wanting readers to agree with us about the person we dislike. We want to make it clear that this is the “bad” person and give that character only despicable traits. Which again leads to one-dimensional characters that are not likely to appear in the real world.
It has been years since I had to continuously move and change schools. When I try to write about my experiences, however, I still see it from the eyes of a ten-year-old who doesn’t understand her mother’s motives. If I am not careful then my mother’s character falls flat and lifeless onto the page.
To combat that weakness, I try to give all my characters, especially my antagonists, unique traits. From having a fridge full of leftovers to only using powdered laundry detergent, every character has something that readers can ponder over, even as they yearn for more. The quirks promise a depth to the character, and readers are assured that there is more to the character than what first appears. Building off a trait makes it easier to create a character that seems to jump off the page.
Young writers often believe that when they write they should already know what they are going to say. That is, that the writer should already know the direction that the story will take when they put pen to paper, or hands to keyboard. With that in mind, young writers often spend little time thinking about the characters they are placing on the page, and far too much time on the plot or setting. While plot and setting are both important, they should not come at the expense of three-dimensional characters.
The following exercise requires the writer to give an unusual or quirky trait to an antagonist that has nothing to do with good or evil, but instead is one that they (the writer) themselves have. Too often we, as writers, create antagonists that we don’t understand or empathize with. This leads to characters who act seemingly without reason, and solely for the purpose of continuing the plot. Adding this quirk not only lends itself to the idea of showing instead of telling, but also illuminates the truth that characters, like real people, are not as they first appear. This exercise helps young and experienced writers alike avoid bland characterization and ensures that the characters are as unique as real people. This exercise introduces the complexities that come with character building and can later be combined with more complex exercises, ensuring that the stories we write contain the magic of characters who leap off the page.
- Have students imagine someone from their real life whom they dislike or don’t get along with.
- Once they have someone in mind, have them write for five minutes describing that person and their actions.
- Next, have students think of a mundane activity that they themselves have recently done that highlights a quirk they have. They might need a few minutes to come up with something about themselves.
- Take five minutes and have students write about that activity in as much detail as possible.
- For the last five minutes, have students go back to the person that they dislike and write about a quirk that they have. It can be the same one that the writer already wrote about or a new one; however, it shouldn’t be mean or off-putting out of spite. The student should strive to ensure the antagonist has a quirk that prompts readers to dig deeper and find out more about the character.
- Students can use this as an opening for a flash piece that they finish for homework, or they can incorporate this character development into their revisions to be turned in.
Example of the Exercise
She does yoga in her front yard, bending and stretching her body in all manner of directions. Her small breasts flash through her yoga shirt every time she strains too far in any direction. She refuses to wear a bra to hold them in place. More dogs than she can care for watch from the window of her living room, and bark at any who pass by. Although most cross the street to avoid her. Her daughter is banned to the back room, where she can be forgotten with the babysitter. Nobody is allowed to bother her when her yoga mat is out.
I cleaned out my fridge this weekend. Every time the door opened the rotten pile of two-week-old pasta would leak its smell into the house. The milk that needed just a little more time to turn into a solid went into the trash, followed by the gumbo that I cooked a month ago when that cold front hit. Excitement hit when I saw the tub of Cool Whip I didn’t remember buying, but had turned sour like the leftovers I’d shoved into whatever container I could find. The whole thing went into the trash, where I had just as much chance of eating it as I did when I first placed it into the fridge.
She puts her yoga mat up and then opens the fridge. She grabs the tub of light Cool Whip out of the fridge. It will go perfectly with strawberries. At least that’s what the commercials say. She quickly realizes when she pries it open that it is not the sweet Cool Whip she had imagined, but a meal left over from who knows when. She can no longer tell what it originally was. She considers placing it back in the fridge, but eyes the mold growing up the sides and decides to throw the container straight into the trash. Still looking for the whipped cream for her strawberries, she moves the dish with last week’s spaghetti to the side, and spots month-old grapes. She sighs in disappointment. She really wanted to eat those grapes.
Briana Stewart is currently working toward her MA and specializes in creative writing (fiction) at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.