High Intensity Writing Workout No. 5


This week’s workout expands a great deal on what you did in HIWW No. 4 because it’s all about character. Last week I had you creating a basic character, listing out a handful of facts about her, generate some goals and story ideas, then go back and change one fact. From there you got to deal with the consequences of that change.

This week things are going to be a bit more radical and are directly applicable to books you’ve written or are in the process of developing and writing. This exercise (or the pieces of it) provides a great way to generate some characters on the fly—whether you’re working from an existing character, or a character template. By character template I mean a rough model of what a character from that species/culture/era/profession is assumed to be like—the average Joe, if you will, for that sort of person.

The idea for this exercise comes from two sources. Almost thirty years ago, at the World Fantasy Convention in Tucson, AZ; Stephen R. Donaldson gave a talk in which he noted that in genre fiction, most characters tend to be a reflection of the main character. They mirror or distort aspects of him. Steve also noted that in non-genre fiction, the characters tend to mirror aspects of their world/environment—they become avatars of aspects of their society.

At roughly that same time, while working for Flying Buffalo, Inc., I spent a fortune (at least $30 which, at that time, was a fortune) on a business white paper that talked about methods for creating new products. I have found the methodology useful, especially when stuck in the middle of a story. (I’d credit the paper and author if I still had it, but I lent it to a friend and it’s never made its way back to me.)

The white paper suggested that to create a new product, one merely needs to look at an existing product and do one or all of the following:

1) Swap black for white
2) Turn it inside out
3) Turn it upside down

I know, all that for $30.

Fact is, the methodology has worked for me down through the years. In combining the two things we can create characters who are relatable to the main character (or exemplars of his society) and create instant points of tension. Let me expand on how this works for characters.

Swap black for white. With characters I look at swapping positives for negatives, or strengths for weaknesses or conviction for uncertainty. Clearly, if you have a pristine, pure, noble Paladin-esque character as your protagonist, creating someone who has been around, who gives in to vices, who can be cruel or craven, provides you with a nice contrast. If they aren’t enemies but, instead, have to work together, there’s plenty of opportunity for them to help each other grow. In the case of a villain, keeping the same traits as the hero, but skewing his goals and letting the ends justify any means to attain them, you get the shadow version of the hero. That has tons of great oppositional points to play with.

Turn it inside out. This point shouldn’t be taken literally. I think of this as making secrets public, and taking a public aspect and hiding it. Also, taking a fact the character holds to be true and making it false, or vice versa. One character’s source of shame could be the source of another character’s glorious notoriety. For example, a man whose family secretly made a fortune bootlegging now has to deal with a person who has unabashedly made tons of money through criminal activities, though he now claims he’s gone legit. This particular trick is great to use in the middle of a story, where the transformation happens to your main character, presenting her with a problem that she has to deal with. (News that she had a conviction for smuggling drugs could become public and cause a scandal; or an old confederate could be blackmailing her to keep it quiet.)

Turn it upside down. This aspect is where you apply the idea of a reversal of fortune. I did this in my novel In Hero Years… I’m Dead. The character Nicholas Haste (Nighthaunt) was a wealthy playboy socialite who saw his parents murdered in front of him when he was a youth. Leonidas Chase (Doctor Sinisterion) was the poor son of a couple whom he saw murdered in front of him as a youth, who was raised by a felonious uncle. Nick and Leonidas suffered the same trauma, but because of their circumstances, had entirely different life experiences.

Any and all of these techniques can be applied broadly, or to tiny aspects of the character. As noted above, if you use them to differentiate a character from the societal norm, you instantly have a rebel or outsider or outlaw or outcast, which is a great starting place for creating secondary characters.

This general technique also applies to pushing characters into worlds that have long been established. There are four story types/circumstances that can be applied to any character you want to inject into a situation:

1) Fish out of water (complete inability to cope with current circumstances).
2) Square peg, round hole (uncomfortable/hostile fit in current circumstances).
3) Innocents Abroad (utterly clueless about current circumstances).
4) Man Beneath Mask (appears to fit, but secretly is at odds with current circumstances).

To make any of the above ideas work, the author just has to ask:

1) Why is this so?
2) How does it manifest?
3) What are the personality aspects/facts that cause this to be true?

In answering these questions, you’ll generate all sorts of conflicts and the key points for growth. If you were to look at Luke Skywalker from A New Hope (an Innocents Abroad story) and answer the questions, you’d get:

1) He’s a farm boy whose only combat experience is killing rodents in a speeder.
2) Can’t fight, knows nothing of politics or history, thinks killing DeathStar will be easy.
3) He’s naive, he doesn’t trust himself or the Force, sees only the good in folks.

The answers to 2 and 3 provide you with challenges that need to be addressed in the story. He needs to learn to fight, to trust the Force, and to learn what’s really up with the politics in the GFFA. And, by the end of A New Hope he’s managed to make inroads on all of these points.

The Workout:

Take any character you’ve created, or any main character from a story you like, and apply the techniques above to create three alt versions of that character. Then, using the second set of techniques, thrust one of these newly created characters into a world and list out the growth points for that character so you can resolve the conflicts with her immediate circumstances.

Do this for three characters and you’ll master the techniques. Creating new characters and finding stories for them should be a snap after that.

Please feel free to share some of the more interesting results in the comments below.

©2015 Michael A. Stackpole


I’m really enjoying writing and sharing these exercises. I hope you’re finding them useful. I really want to thank everyone who has retweeted the notices, and especially those who have turned around and bought something out of my online store, like 21 Days to a Novel. The fact that these exercises caught enough of your interest for you to invest in your writing is a great incentive for me to continue.

If you’re serious about your writing, you’ll want to take a look at my book, 21 Days to a Novel. It’s a 21 day long program that will help you do all the prep work you need to be able to get from start to finish on your novel. If you’ve ever started a book or story and had it die after ten pages or ten chapters, the 21 Days to a Novel program will get you past the problems that killed your work. 21 Days to a Novel covers everything from characterization to plotting, showing you how to put together a story that truly works.

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