This is one of my favourite activities for getting under the skin of my characters in the planning stages of a story. It works for characters of all ages.
If you want to write believable characters, they have to have hopes, dreams, desires, things they really want (and things they really don’t want!). Your character’s wants and needs determine how they will act in any given situation and while you might not use all of these in any one story, it’s a good exercise for any character you are writing.
The task: Write a list of ten secret New Year’s resolutions for your character. Make them as specific as possible (avoid things such as I will eat less chocolate, or I will do more exercise). Dig deep and make them specific to your character. It’s important that this is a secret list for your character. It’s not a list they will share with other people as it’s likely to include things that would be embarrassing, sound a bit ridiculous to anyone else, or that might get them in trouble.
Things that you might include:
- A phobia or dislike your character wants to overcome.
- A specific skill your character wants to develop.
- A particular item or object your character wants to buy, steal, borrow or see.
- A place your character wants to visit.
- An activity your character particularly wants to take part in (or alternatively an activity they want to avoid or to stop doing).
- A job your character wants to get.
- A big dream your character has (even one they think might never come true).
Your list will give you some real insights into your character. It might also suggest a story that might be told about them.
Write the list up and tape it above your desk or wherever you write, so you can refer to it when you come to write your story.
Once you know what your character wants you can start putting obstacles in the way of achieving that thing, and desires, combined with obstacles to those desires, form the engine of story.
Variation: play around with creating New Year’s resolution lists for your character at different points in their life. Write a list for them when they are in their early teens, in their late twenties and in their sixties. Are there any common threads that run through all of the lists?
Wyl Menmuir is a novelist and editor based in Cornwall. His bestselling debut novel, The Many (Salt Publishing) was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. In November 2016, Nightjar Press published a limited edition chapbook of his story Rounds and in 2017, the National Trust published his story, In Dark Places.
Wyl has written for both Radio 4’s Open Book and for The Observer, and is a regular contributor to the journal Elementum. He teaches creative writing at Falmouth University and Manchester Metropolitan University.
Wyl is co-creator of the Cornish Writing Centre, The Writers’ Block, and has worked with Arvon Foundation, National Literacy Trust and Centre for Literacy in Primary Education on a series of high profile literacy programmes.