* Who is it who is working counter to your hero, and why? Remember that the antagonist in a story doesn’t necessarily have to be a ‘bad guy.’ The starry-eyed environmentalist who is running for mayor might be opposed by a chisel-chinned defender of the free market, but maybe it’s more complex than that … maybe the antagonist is the eco-candidate’s own campaign manager, who secretly believes she should be the one running for office. Or perhaps it’s the spouse of the candidate, who never sees her zealot husband any more and feels like she’s bringing up their child alone. Often, the higher the moral standard of the antagonist, the more complex the story. Practice: Imagine the protagonist of a piece is someone who wants to keep a local elementary school from closing its doors and merging with another school in town. What are the range of potential antagonists, some of whom might be sympathetic characters in their own right? Avoid the stereotypical unfeeling school board trustee who’s just interested in the financial bottom line.
* For the purposes of this exercise, put the characters in your story around a dinner table. Practice writing in each character’s POV (point of view). What do each of them notice; how do each of them perceive the event differently?
* Have you heard of a Living Library? They are events at which you can come and ‘check out’ a person instead of a book, and then have a conversation with them to find out all those things that you’ve wondered about but were afraid to ask. The initial aim of the Living Libraries was to work to break down prejudices between people of different backgrounds, but they would be a wonderful research tool for a writer! Typical ‘books’ that are available for conversation are people who may be gay, a policman, Muslim, homeless, a refugee, etc. If you don’t have a Living Library in your town, google one and find out what ‘books’ they have available – pick one at random and interview them on the page. What might their answers be? How might they surprise you? Do some mind-expanding research so that your resulting character doesn’t just reflect the stereotypes or prejudices you may have in your own head.
* Mentally send one of your characters on a road trip. Where would s/he go, and why? Have them send a postcard, email or letter to someone back home. What would it say?
* This exercise is based on a the last half of a story I heard on CBC radio once. I call it ‘Lydia is…’ because it consisted of a whole list of sentences, each of which began with ‘Lydia is…’. In my writing groups, I ask people to close their eyes and imagine someone they see around their neighbourhood or workplace, but don’t know anything about. Now, give that mystery person a name and put your imagination to work, brainstorming a list of ‘Lydia is….’ statements. For example:
Ronald is afraid to go to work every morning, but he hates going home even more.
Ronald is tired of being called Ron by people who don’t know him.
Ronald wonders if his brother remembers that Ronald still owes him five thousand dollars from ten years ago, or if he’s forgotten.
Ronald glances at the women’s shoes in the shop window every morning on his way to work. He wonders if this is normal.
Before long, you’ll not just have the makings of a complex, full-bodied character, you’ll likely have stumbled upon some story ideas as well.