Monday, May 9, 2011

Character Exercises

You will create many different types of characters in order to flesh out your story. Obviously, the protagonist - hero or anti-hero - is your main character and deserves the most attention. However, most stories also include an antagonist, hopefully a villain that is complex and layered, and then there's the plethora of supporting characters - friends and rivals, even symbolic and nonhuman characters - that are essential to moving the story forward. When creating characters - main and supporting - it's helpful to explore them through writing exercises. These five character exercises are designed to help you develop and strengthen your characters. Give them a try; you never know what treasures you might discover.


Objective: Learn a character’s insights, thoughts, and feelings.
Exercise: Write a monologue (1 page) that accurately portrays your character. What is he/she feeling at that moment? What is his/her hopes? His/her fears? What does he/she love? Hate?
Remember: The character is speaking to him/herself.
Hints: Use the character’s speech patterns and vocabulary - their voice.

Objective: Use exposition to learn a character’s past experiences.
Exercise: Write a speech (1 page) in which your character describes, explains, tells, or preaches about a specific event, experience, or idea. Here are some suggestions:
- Explain his/her FIRST LOVE AFFAIR.
- Recall his/her experience of DISCOVERING A DEAD BODY.
- Lecture on a situation of INTERNATIONAL MILITARY CONFLICT.
Remember: The character is speaking to someone or even to a group of people. Decide who your character is addressing. The specifics of your character’s audience will affect word choice and presentation.
Hints: Use the character’s speech patterns and vocabulary - their voice.

Objective: Explore the things people surround themselves with that define character.
Exercise: Describe a bedroom where two people live. They can be college roommates, siblings, lovers, husband/wife - it's up to you. You are to describe the room three times in script form (NO DIALOGUE - TWO PAGES MAXIMUM):
1) The first time the two people live in harmony.
2) The second, there has been a fight between the two roommates.
3) The third, one of the roommates has moved out.

Remember: The tricky part is you are to describe only the room. There are no people in any of these scenes. Use objects, furniture, clothes, etc… to differentiate between the two roommates. Don't just list objects. Write with a sense of discovery. The way in which you reveal information is important. It affects our understanding as well as our emotions.

Hints: Subtle, but clear, changes should occur to the room as their relationship dissolves. We should know from the descriptions who these people are, what happened, which one started the fight, what the fight was about and who moved out.

Questions that should be answered: Who are these two people? What are their ages? What do they look like? How long have they lived together? What was the argument about? Who started it? How did they deal with it? Who moved out?

Objective: Dig deep with a character, discovering background history, personality, psychology, and current goals.

Exercise: Write a character biography (1 page) of a person who is unable to love. Base this on someone you know. Know everything about this character: looks, family, religion, childhood, etc. Use the details of real life - the life you know. Then select from what you know, and describe the character in dramatic, cinematic terms - that is, in ways that are of use to a screenwriter.

Remember: Most of all, you must know and articulate the reason why this character is unable to love. What is holding him/her back? What does he or she fear will happen if he/she fear will happen if he/she falls in love? Rejection? Certain disappointment, e.g., was there once someone he loved that no one can ever live up to?Finally, how does he imagine himself at moments when he has a chance to love someone but doesn't? Fragile? Tired? Protective? Noble? Wise?

Schedule: Use the character seven-day schedule to help you fully develop this character.


Objective: Make your character stand out.

Exercise: Write a scene (1-3 pages) that introduces your character. Use description, props, wardrobe and dialogue that give your character a unique voice.

Remember: Introduction scenes are often scenes of the “status quo” - the character living his or her everyday life before the inciting incident propels the character into a new conflict.

Hints: Action speak louder than words. If your character is in a group, have them do something specific and unique that makes them memorable and interesting.

Example: COOL HAND LUKE (1967) - The opening scene to the screenplay by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson originally had two sections of dialogue of Luke talking to himself as he cut off the parking meters. What you will read here is the way we see the final edit of the film. Clearly, dialogue was unnecessary to illustrate Luke’s tragic flaw: defiance.

Its irritating head opens a glaring red eye: the red flag pops across the entire screen:
CLOSEUP of a pipe cutter attached to the meter neck, metal slivers curling out.
as the meter head falls out of FRAME.
as it falls to the ground amidst a forest of meter stands and Luke's hand comes into the FRAME to pick it up and we see LUCAS JACKSON in CLOSEUP for the first time. He is cheerful, drunk, wearing a faded GI Field jacket. A bottle opener hangs on a silver chain around his neck.
Suddenly the beam of headlights crashes in, FLARING the SCREEN.
sliding up to us, headlights glaring, red toplight revolving menacingly. TWO OFFICERS, black shapes, get out and start warily toward Luke.
illuminated by the headlights. He grins as the Officers approach, lifts a bottle of beer, opens it and drinks, smiling. On his smile, FREEZE FRAME. ON THE FRAME SUPER-IMPOSE MAIN TITLE.


Objective: Discover details about your character by playing the part.

Exercise: Go to a location and make decisions as your character.

Remember: Truly be the character. Even the cold-blooded assassin needs to eat. Everybody goes to the grocery store, but not everybody shops the same. Choice – the act of selecting or making a decision – marks the difference between people. And how a person goes about making the choice is incredibly revealing.
Hints: Clearly, this exercise can be applied in any location: order a burger as your character would, pick up some books in the library that only your character would read, walk through the mall and go into stores that your character would shop in.

Character Questionnaire

1. How does your character think of their father? What do they hate and love about him? What influence - literal or imagined - did the father have?

2. Their mother? How do they think of her? What do they hate? Love? What influence - literal or imagined - did the mother have?
3. Brothers, sisters? Who do they like? Why? What do they despise about their siblings?
4. What type of discipline was your character subjected to at home? Strict? Lenient?
5. Were they overprotected as a child? Sheltered?
6. Did they feel rejection or affection as a child?
7. What was the economic status of their family?
8. How does your character feel about religion?
9. What about political beliefs?
10. Is your character street-smart, book-smart, intelligent, intellectual, slow-witted?
11. How do they see themselves: as smart, as intelligent, uneducated?
12. How does their education and intelligence – or lack thereof - reflect in their speech pattern, vocabulary, and pronunciations?
13. Did they like school? Teachers? Schoolmates?
14. Were they involved at school? Sports? Clubs? Debate? Were they unconnected?
15. Did they graduate? High-School? College? Do they have a PHD? A GED?
16. What does your character do for a living? How do they see their profession? What do they like about it? Dislike?
17. Did they travel? Where? Why? When?
18. What did they find abroad, and what did they remember?
19. What were your character's deepest disillusions? In life? What are they now?
20. What were the most deeply impressive political or social, national or international, events that they experienced?
21. What are your character's manners like? What is their type of hero? Whom do they hate?
22. Who are their friends? Lovers? 'Type' or 'ideal' partner?
23. What do they want from a partner? What do they think and feel of sex?
24. What social groups and activities does your character attend? What role do they like to play? What role do they actually play, usually?
25. What are their hobbies and interests?
26. What does your character's home look like? Personal taste? Clothing? Hair? Appearance?
27. How do they relate to their appearance? How do they wear their clothing? Style? Quality?
28. Who is your character's mate? How do they relate to him or her? How did they make their choice?
29. What is your character's weaknesses? Hubris? Pride? Controlling?
30. Are they holding on to something in the past? Can he or she forgive?
31. Does your character have children? How do they feel about their parental role? About the children? How do the children relate?
32. How does your character react to stress situations? Defensively? Aggressively? Evasively?
33. Do they drink? Take drugs? What about their health?
34. Does your character feel self-righteous? Revengeful? Contemptuous?
35. Do they always rationalize errors? How do they accept disasters and failures?
36. Do they like to suffer? Like to see other people suffering?
37. How is your character's imagination? Daydreaming a lot? Worried most of the time? Living in memories?
38. Are they basically negative when facing new things? Suspicious? Hostile? Scared? Enthusiastic?
39. What do they like to ridicule? What do they find stupid?
40. How is their sense of humor? Do they have one?
41. Is your character aware of who they are? Strengths? Weaknesses? Idiosyncrasies? Capable of self-irony?
42. What does your character want most? What do they need really badly, compulsively? What are they willing to do, to sacrifice, to obtain?
43. Does your character have any secrets? If so, are they holding them back?
44. How badly do they want to obtain their life objectives? How do they pursue them?
45. Is your character pragmatic? Think first? Responsible? All action? A visionary? Passionate? Quixotic?
46. Is your character tall? Short? What about size? Weight? Posture? How do they feel about their physical body?
47. Do they want to project an image of a younger, older, more important person? Does they want to be visible or invisible?
48. How are your character's gestures? Vigorous? Weak? Controlled? Compulsive? Energetic? Sluggish?
49. What about voice? Pitch? Strength? Tempo and rhythm of speech? Pronunciation? Accent?
50. What are the prevailing facial expressions? Sour? Cheerful? Dominating?