by Patrick Scalisi
When you’re working on a story, it can sometimes be fun to step away from the main project and work instead on documents related to that project. By this I mean any supplemental material you’ve written in support of your story. This could be your outline (if you made one), character profiles, setting notes — whatever! After all, these documents help you build and populate the world in which your story takes place.
Some people may think that “world building” is only necessary if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction. While world building is essential to these two genres, the fact is that all fiction takes place in an imaginary world, no matter how closely it resembles the real world.
Your characters are likewise fictional people. Even if “real people” are part of the story, they’re still fictionalized versions of these individuals. Part of your world building, then, is getting to know your characters so they jump off the page as fully realized people. Flat, one-dimensional characters are often boring and make for tepid stories. But dynamic, three-dimensional characters make us sit up and pay attention because we recognize them from real life.
So how can you get to know your characters better? One way is to think like a journalist and write some supplemental, world-building material about your characters. Here are a few exercises you can try.
The first exercise is to “interview” you character. It may seem unusual to interview someone who doesn’t exist, but it can be a great way to get inside your character’s head. Think about what questions you’d ask this character if you were chatting with them and then write the answers from their point of view.
For this exercise, you really want to focus on freewriting. Let your characters answer the questions; don’t worry about writing with perfect grammar or sentence structure. After all, this material is for your benefit and not necessarily for public consumption. Besides, if you listen to how people talk, they rarely speak in complete, perfect sentences.
The second exercise you can try is to write an article about your character, either something they’re doing in the context of the story or something from their past. Think of yourself as a feature reporter. You’re going to tell a very specific story about a very specific incident from this character’s life. What magazine or newspaper might publish this story? What do other stories in that publication look like and how can you make yours look and sound similar?
I found these exercises extremely useful when I was writing my novel THE KEY TO THE UNIVERSE from Owl Hollow Press. I wrote a salacious tabloid article about one of the main characters and a sports feature about a virtual reality game that appears in the book. Neither article is in the final novel, but both helped me better understand what I was writing about and, hopefully, make them appear more real (even though both sprang entirely from my imagination). Besides that, they were fun to write as a break from working on the main manuscript.
What kind of articles are you going to write about your characters? Let us know in the comments!
Patrick Scalisi is a journalist, communications professional, and fiction author from Connecticut. He has published stories in several magazines and anthologies. He also served as editor of THE GHOST IS THE MACHINE, a bestselling anthology of steampunk-horror stories from Post Mortem Press. Pat’s debut novel, THE KEY TO THE UNIVERSE, was released by Owl Hollow Press in 2019. Visit him online at patrickscalisi.com