Writing Exercises for Creative Fiction Writers (Characterization, Prose Style, and Language)

The debate over whether or not creative fiction writing can ever truly be taught may well never be resolved. However, after several decades of institutionalized creative writing pedagogy, it’s fairly safe to conclude that there are certainly ways to teach the craft if not the art of creative writing, and although the pedagogy of any art form can be a delicate undertaking, several methods for the teaching of fiction writing have emerged over time. By far the most common and traditional way of teaching creative writing is through the “workshop” class format – i.e., where  a small class, led by an instructor whose role generally resembles less a traditional, directive “teacher” role and more that of a discussion facilitator, in which students take turns discussing one another’s creative work in a roundtable-style discussion – there are also other methods that can be integrated into the teaching of creative writing, whether in a workshop environment or not. Among the most popular of these is the use of writing exercises or invitations, which can be used in both a classroom/group or one-on-one setting. Exercises/invitations are particularly useful for beginner/intermediate-level writing students who may not yet have a solid grasp of one or more of the basic foundations of creative fiction writing. In here, we will examine several such writing exercises, focusing on those related to characterization, which is frequently the most challenging to beginning creative writers.

Characterization, the art of developing and realizing fully articulated characters, usually presents the most significant challenge to inexperienced writers of fiction, because the process of interpreting and integrating the techniques of characterization from other literary work that the student has read in the past is a slow and nuanced process; while a writer may have conceived an interesting and detailed character, it frequently takes many attempts to fully realize that character in all of his/her complexity on the page. From my experience in both participating in and teaching introductory fiction workshops, I’ve noticed three frequently recurring traps that beginning writers tend to fall into when developing characters:

1.  The narrator or protagonist of the story will often be a barely veiled version of the writer himself (in this situation, secondary characters will often also bear a  close resemblance to real-life people from the writer’s life). The first problem with this is that the story tends to become autobiography dressed up as fiction, often featuring with a highly idealized and unrealistic version of the writer. While there is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with using a real-life event or series of events as a basis for a work of fiction, there exists a tendency among inexperienced writers to write about events from their own lives that may be very emotionally resonant for the writer, but not so for a reader who is unfamiliar with the writer’s life. Similarly, the writer will often unwittingly write from a position of familiarity with the real-life inspired characters that a reader will, of course, not share.

2.  The writer will often use quick and easy “shortcuts” to characterization, which usually results in a heavy reliance on clichéd archetypes. For example, a writer might try to show that a character is “deep” merely by making the character a philosophy student at Yale instead of showing the complexity of the character through his or her actions, thoughts, and dialogue, or a character in a story (sometimes this can also extend to use of ethnic, racial and other stereotypes).

3.  The writer may be so involved in his/her idea of the chain of events that make up the narrative that character development falls almost entirely by the wayside altogether, and the characters are flat and transparent, means to an end rather than realistic representations of actual people, which, of course, makes the prospect of a reader being in any sense engaged with the story somewhat unlikely.

Characterization-Related Writing Exercises:

In the first two exercises, the central purpose is to encourage the writer to disambiguate themselves from their characters, quite literally in the first one. In the second one, encouraging the writer to write a piece depicting themselves from the third person in difficult situation forces the writer to consider the hypothetical underlying motivations for the actions of a person they’re intimately familiar with – themselves – with the aim of encouraging the writer to do the same for the fictional characters they will be working with in future creative work.

1.  Choose a character from a story you have written or are in the process of writing, then write a scene or multiple scenes in which that character interacts with you, the author. One way to approach this exercise is to write with the assumption that the character understands that you, as the author, “created” him or her and are responsible for the things that happened to them in the course of the story; another is to write as though the character does not know these things and is simply interacting with the author as just another person that he or she has met. For a bigger challenge, do the exercise using a secondary or tertiary character from the story (as opposed to the main protagonist).

2.  Think of a situation in which a long-held fear or anxiety that you have comes true (this should be a situation which could, but has not yet happened). Now, using the third-person mode of narration, write a scene – or a very short story – describing a fictional version of yourself dealing with the situation.

The following exercises serve the purpose of encouraging the writer to think in less conventional and stereotypical ways about how fictional characters’ actions and motivations are linked – or not – to their appearance and cultural backgrounds, with the overall aim of discouraging the reliance on archetype and stereotype in character development.

  • With a partner, spend a few minutes “people watching” in a public place. Pick a person you see and write a detailed physical description of that person. Then write a quick “backstory” about that person – i.e., a quick synopsis of their background, their personal and professional lives, etc., and then imagine an interesting situation that person might find themselves in.  Meanwhile, your partner should do the same for a different person. When you’re done, exchange either the physical descriptions or the backstories and then write a scene or a short story using the elements that you now have. Does your perception of how you might expect a character to behave change as a result of the change in the character’s physical appearance and dress?
  • Our preconceptions of our own characters are heavily informed by conventions of the cultural context, era, time and place, etc. that the story takes place in. Rewrite a part of a short story you have written (usually one scene), resetting the narrative in a different place and/or culture or a different time in the place where it originally takes place (of course, this will not always be feasible if the original story is heavily dependent on its own historical/geographical context), using what you know about that place or time. How did your perceptions of your characters change? What did you learn about them? To what extent did the original narrative survive the transposition?

Other Exercises (Prose Style and Language):

These exercises are geared to encourage the student to think about his or her approach to prose style and language. The purpose of the first two is to encourage the writer to think about how the literature that he or she has read influences their own writing, with the eventual goal of encouraging the writer to develop his or her own aesthetic.  The second two exercises encourage the writer to consider his or her use of language in creative writing and both its limitations and opportunities.

1.  Choose  one of your favorite piece of fiction (a short story or novel) and write a new ending (the last page or two) in what you consider “your own” prose style. How is the new ending different from the original? What similarities remain?

2.  Alternately, select a story you have written as well as a short story or novel you have read in the past that deals with similar subject matter (the similarities don’t have to be very close). Now, rewrite the ending of your story in the prose style of the short story you’ve selected.

3.  Write a scene of a short story (one or two pages) without using any adjectives. How does your approach to description change when you are unable to rely on traditional modes of description? What aesthetic choices does that limitation encourage you to make?

4. Try to write one sentence (either descriptive or describing an action) more than three hundred words in length (without using conjunctions).  Now try to write a scene of similar length using sentences that are no longer than six words each. How did your use of language change as you shifted between these modes of writing?

--The Writing Center thanks Sergei Tsimberov for contributing this handout.