Most writers’ initial forays into fleshing out characters in their shiny new WIPs involve pages, sometimes entire chapters, of disposable drafting. While it’s true some of these words might find their way in as backstory (provided it’s handled appropriately) this early writing is mostly a tool for the writer in getting to know his or her characters. Here’s a writing exercise which might be helpful with early character development and even make your initial WIP drafting more efficient.
Invite your characters over for dinner.
Out here in the real world a simple and fun way get to know someone better is to share a meal with them. So why not do the same with your new characters? While you’re at it why not invite all the characters from your current WIP over at the same time? Instead of just dinner, hold a banquet!
Once you’ve made the decision to play host and the imaginary invitations have been sent out, the real work of character observation begins.
Here is a list of some things you’ll want to pay attention to as your fictional evening unfolds:
- Which of your characters was late and which ones were on time?
- Who took the time to RSVP and who simply showed up at your door?
- Did anyone come empty handed? If not, what did they bring?
- Did anyone arrive unexpected or uninvited? Who decided to bring a date along?
- How did each of them come dressed for the occasion?
- Who seemed happy to be there and who seemed annoyed?
- How did they each arrange themselves at the table? Did anyone presume to sit at the head of the table?
- Assuming you’re a stupendous host with a boundless spread of delicacies, what kinds of foods did each of them eat? Are any of them vegetarians? Vegans?
- Who knew which fork was for what? Who talked with their mouth full?
- Who put their napkin in their lap? Or tucked it into their collar? Who didn’t bother using a napkin at all?
- Did anyone pick at or push their food around on their plate? Who cleaned their plates or asked for seconds? Or thirds?!?
- Did anyone try to make off with any of your stuff when no one was looking?
- Which of your characters dominated the conversation? Who sat quietly trying not to be noticed?
- Who was ready to, or needed to, go home as soon as the meal was over? Did anyone stay too late and wear out their welcome to they had to be asked to leave?
- Did anyone find the liquor cabinet then need a cab to get home or even pass out on your couch?
- . . .
The purpose of the exercise is simply to notice how each of your individual characters behaves in a commonplace, imaginary setting. This can help you better distinguish your characters from each other as well as point out where some of your characters are more alike than you had thought. The most most thing here is to give each of your characters plenty of room to act freely then expect to be surprised!
It can be difficult, even painful at times, to throw away some those early, hard fought words or scenes from your early drafts. Spending a little time up front really getting to know your characters first can help you hit the ground running when you do sit down to draft. And if you feel you may be one of those writers who keeps too much early drafting around, simply plan in advance to use disposable tableware.
Just in case.