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Writing Exercise: How to Start Loving Your Characters

As you probably are aware by now, story is what drives a reader to the end of a book, but characters are what readers fall in love with. The Greeks referred to this tension with the terms Thanos and Eros. Thanos, which refers to death, is the drive of the plot that forces a reader to keep going until the end of the book. Eros, love, is a relationship that the reader develops with the character; something that keeps readers in the book and not wanting it to ever end.

So, how can you make your characters—flaws and all—people that your readers can’t forget?

As Mark Twain said, “Don’t tell us that the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.” To paraphrase, readers get to know characters through their actions—not through their thoughts or words. Here is an exercise that you can work on while you think about how to make your characters the best they can be:

Take a character you’ve been working on. Put him or her in an entirely unfamiliar situation (a priest at a Grateful Dead concert; an Olympic swimmer in a dessert). Write a scene of what that character DOES in that situation—using words only if you absolutely must. How does this character’s action reveal his or her personality?

How a Strong Character Arc Can Make Readers Love Your Protagonist

In this situation, you might find that it is your character’s flaws rather than your character’s strengths that most grab your readers. Forcing someone out of his or her element bypasses the stock, stereotypical responses that you might be tempted to use when writing that character in a familiar situation.

Show your characters some love and stretch the heck out of them! Then, you will figure out who they really are.

Learn more in the online workshop Character Development: Creating Memorable Characters:

When you take this online writing course, you will learn how to create believable fiction characters and construct scenes with emotional depth and range. Learn more and register.

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Writing Exercise: Judge a Book By its Cover

Everyone knows the old adage that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. However, imagining what a book might be about based on what you see on the cover can be a useful writing exercise.

This is the idea behind the recurring segment on Late Night with Seth Meyers, called “Fred Judges a Book by its Cover.” In this segment, Meyers begins by saying that Armisen is very busy and does not have any time to read, not even one minute. However, Armisen claims to have the ability to know the entire plot of a book simply by looking at the image on the front cover.

To test his ability, Meyers will show Armisen the cover of a newly released book for him to look at and guess how the story goes. Of course, Armisen’s fake plots are always far-fetched, make little sense and have zero resemblance to what the book is actually about. But that’s not to say that hilarity and creativity do not ensue.

Why not try Armisen’s activity to stimulate your own creativity? Many book jackets have beautiful designs, but are vague enough that the story you invent won’t be a rip-off of the book it actually represents. To avoid being too influenced by the real plot of a book, try this activity using the covers of books that you have not read or with books written by authors you are unfamiliar with. Do not read the plot summary on the back cover until you have written your own story.

Take it to the Next Level 

Try this exercise for an entire series of books. Find a series you haven’t read (and know nothing about) in your local bookstore. Think of a plot inspired by each book cover. In the true spirit of a book series, each of the stories you create must build upon the story you thought of for the previous book in the series.

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