I am meeting a new character right now. The main character of a new WIP. After reading this post about character sheets from Lydia Kang's "The Word Is My Oyster", I was reminded to tell you about an exercise I use for almost everything I write. I learned it back in a play writing class my sophomore year of college and I use it to this day at any given point while I'm writing a piece.
I call it the, "I'm going to tell you a story..." exercise. Basically you write or type these words on a page:
"I'm going to tell you a story. It's a story about: __________ "
In that blank space you can put anything. Anything at all. If you know nothing about the character, maybe you want to put in the word "yesterday". The key is to launch into a story from your character's POV (that's the important part) about what happened yesterday. This is a great way to find out how they feel the moment you start the story.
Maybe you need to get deep. Maybe you need to get into some serious psychological stuff. Maybe you need to know the story about the character's "childhood." Oh boy. That's an earload.
Maybe you don't want to be so plot heavy. Maybe you just want to get to know them or maybe they are getting too predictable. So maybe you want to just put in something completely random. My personal favorite is: "my shoes." I've discovered that everyone has a story about shoes. And what's great about this is you don't just hear some opinion about heels. It's not a rant. Because the purpose of setting up the exercise is that they are telling you a story. An experience. A memory. You get what we all need in our work: A SCENE.
If you're in the middle of your WIP and you're stuck somewhere or there's a plot hole, feel free to use it again. Fill in the blank with what's gnawing you. Make that character tell you the story about: "what happened when I found the key."
Once you fill in the blank, just go. Let that character ramble. It doesn't have to be good. It's an exercise. Let them talk and talk and talk for pages and pages and pages until you find the answer. Like a reporter, keep investigating until you have your story.
What's nice about this is often we use our first draft to discover things. We take a crazy route until we find our way. There's nothing wrong with this. We all do it. But sometimes it's nice to take it away from the manuscript before getting lost.
What I love about this exercise is it's simplicity and flexibility. You can use it to learn about any character or plot point from the most minor to the most major. I've learned so much about my characters and my work using this method.
I hope you'll try it out at some point. And if you have trouble filling in the blank, don't overthink it. Turn your head and fill it in with the first thing you see. Or send me an e-mail and I'll send you a topic! Because the thing is, once you get them going, your characters will have A LOT to say.