Character prompts

Random Prompts for Character Development

Last year, I bought Natalie Goldberg’s book, Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir. A friend saw Goldberg present at a bookstore about this book and was impressed, so I bit.

Now, I’m not much into writing a memoir. My life has been pretty average. But I’ve kept this book close for the last six weeks or so as I work through the revision on my novel-in-progress. Why? Because it centers on character description and a character’s inner life, and has tons of prompts.

Yesterday I reached a point where I knew that A was thinking about B and needed to decide to invite her over to visit. But how could A justify this, since they were so different?

Old Friend prompt: The Half-n-Half chapter (p. 199-200) reminded me to look around the setting. Goldberg says, “Public school had it all wrong with their topics: justice, morality, liberty, freedom, education.”

Instead, she suggests you look around your setting. Apparently, she was writing that chapter at a coffee shop, because here is part of her list: “half and half, sugar, cherry jelly, peppermint tea, Pepsi. . . .”

Oh, I remember now. Characters live in the particulars, the specifics of who they are, not in the generalities. When you describe your character and put him/her into action, the character description must include details. It took me only a few seconds of brainstorming to come up with band-aids. Yes, band-aids. A reflects on how B decided to get a plain skin-colored band-aids, not a neon color, or a Barbie or GI Joe one, or some other weird pattern, but just a plain one. That made B an okay person in A’s eyes. Short paragraph, in and out of A’s head in a blink.

That worked for me. Much better than the rambling thing I had tried before.

Old Friend has tons of short prompts, anything from one sentence prompt to a couple pages to explain something. It’s not that I couldn’t have come up with band-aids eventually; it’s just that these prompts, chosen randomly, seem to help me speed up the writing time, while deepening character.