Character Writing Prompts

I didn’t understand writing prompts or their purpose when I was younger. Maybe it’s because I always knew what I wanted to do even though I wasn’t aware that wanting wasn’t quite the same thing as knowing how to achieve that writing objective. Writing prompts? I’d roll my eyes at them all through high school and all through college writing courses because I was so eager to get to the story I already had in mind. (The story that wouldn’t work because my characters were cardboard.)

As a result of that eye rolling, I, who thought himself so special, wasn’t open to learning some techniques that really could have helped me get better a lot sooner. (Aren’t all of us who like to write sold that bill of goods about being special from movies and books that celebrate how magical it is to be a writer? Post for another time.)

Yesterday I was writing about how important it is to know your character if you’re going to write swiftly. Well, one of the ways you can get to know those characters so that the prose flows smoothly is to ask some essay questions and then try to write answers in that character’s voice. The trick to avoid making the task onerous is to give yourself a time limit — no more than 5 or 10 minutes. Time yourself, and stop. If it sucks, you haven’t wasted much time and have actually SAVED yourself some time by discovering stuff that can’t possibly work.

But if that essay does NOT suck, give yourself permission to go further, or shove the essay into a folder (be it electronic or manilla) to tap when you need to remember who that character is.

As for those prompts to get you going, if you’re a pencil and dice role-player, you’ve probably seen the sorts of questions you’re asked when you’re designing a character, and similar questions can really get the creative juices flowing. Here are just a few samples, slanted naturally toward the adventure fantasy I prefer to write:

  • If you have siblings, with which one are/were you closest?
  • Who was your mentor, and what was your relationship like?
  • What was your first job, and who did you work with?
  • When did you first wield a weapon/magic?
  • When did you first see truly masterful use of a weapon/magic?
  • What do you want in life?
  • If you could change one thing in your life, what would it be?
  • If you could trade places with one person, who would that be?
  • Who was your first love?
  • What’s the scariest thing you ever experienced?

On a day when you’re having trouble with the prose, or feel like you’re floundering with the characters, try out one of these, or something similar. Remember, write no more than 5 ┬áto 10 minutes on one of them, for one character. Decide in advance whether you want 5 or 10 minutes and then stop when the timer dings. And if you like where it’s going, keep going, or if you realize where it went wrong but feel inspired, you can start over.