How I Write: Developing a character

Image by Geraint Rowland from Flickr Creative Commons
Category: Writing

Welcome to How I Write, your monthly dose of inspiration on a variety of writing topics. This month, we've got some tips on developing a character from New Writers Awardee Samuel Tongue. If you've got a topic you'd like us to cover, send it our way.

This exercise is a technique to help round out and develop your characters, and it's useful for both poetry and prose.

This exercise is useful for both poetry and prose

You’re waiting at a train station for a loved one to arrive. The train is on time (for once) and there are streams of people rushing through the gates on the platform. You’re excited and nervous, noticing some passing details in the oncoming crowd of commuters, but waiting for the familiar sight of your loved one’s face. And then, when you finally catch sight of them, the world narrows around their presence, and they separate from the crowd. Every detail is precious.

We tend to think in categories and sets; individuals do not exist alone - we can see them as individuals because we have been taught to differentiate between them. A dog is not a cat. A person is not a wolf. Of course, through metaphor, similes, and other linguistic games, we can merge and blur categories to create new ways of seeing and meaning.

However, before this happens in our writing, it is important to have a handle on the subjects in question, to be able to describe, in detail, what distinguishes an individual from the group. With this work in place, you can then play with convention. 

So what makes an individual member both a part and apart from the overall group or set? Write two or three paragraphs that focus in on what those individual traits are:

  • One football fan in a stadium of football fans
  • One wolf in a pack of wolves
  • One book in a shelf of library of books.
  • One cake in a whole Great British Bake-Off of cakes
  • One soldier in a parade-ground of soldiers

These are just examples; it is much better to use your own observations. The aim is to discover both the qualities of the group and what sets the individual apart. By keeping this separation in mind, your writing will generate traits, images, and surprising details that add depth to the world you are creating on the page.

Find similar exercises in The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach, edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell (New York: HarperCollins, 1992). 

For more writing advice, take a look at Miss Write's archives.

Samuel Tongue

Samuel Tongue was born in Bath in 1981, grew up in South Wales and moved to Glasgow in 2008 to begin a PhD in Literature, Theology and the Arts at Glasgow University. He has published poems in numerous journals and anthologies including Maquette, The Exeter Flying Post, Succour, From Glasgow to Saturn, The Red Wheelbarrow, Anon 7, Northwords Now, Spellwinders: The Clydebuilt Jazz Ensemble, and  North Light: The Anthology of Clydebuilt 3. He received a New Writers Award in 2013 and currently teaches World Religions and New Testament Theology at Glasgow University.