How to Write Better Characters Using Prompts


Here at Write from Life, our aim is to develop a daily writing practice that will help make us better writers. The first step, of course, is to get into the habit of writing every single day, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Our prompts are sure to help you out if you feel stuck and don’t know what to write. The second step is to start consciously working on improving your writing. Simply writing every day will definitely improve your writing too, but we can also work on certain aspects of storytelling with intention.

One way writing prompts can help us improve as writers is by helping us write better characters. Two posts ago I mentioned that character sketches are a good way to use writing prompts. I gave the example of the prompt “I’d like a Caesar salad and a divorce.” This is a line Madeleine overheard at a restaurant. What a great real life prompt! So how can we use prompts like this to write better characters?

Step 1: Write the First Thing That Comes to Mind About This Person

What kind of a person would say this line? Write the first thing that comes to mind about such a person. Don’t worry about what he or she looks like yet, or their eye or hair colour. Those traits will start to flow naturally from some of the decisions you make about this person now. Perhaps a high-powered lawyer comes to mind first. He or she is strapped for time and so had to combine lunch and letting their spouse know they’d like a divorce! Or perhaps the line is being said as a joke.

Just start writing the first things that come to mind about this person.

Step 2: Basic Character Traits

Now that you have some idea of this person, you can focus in on some physical details. Going with our lawyer example, let’s say our character is a career woman. What does she look like? What is she wearing? We can guess that she’s probably wearing an elegant, expensive pantsuit with high heels. Her hair may be pulled back in a slick ponytail, and her makeup is done perfectly. She is extremely well put together.

What else can we assume about her? She probably sits straight in her chair and is used to being in control.

Step 3: Character History

Now that we know what Sheila (let’s call her Sheila) looks like and does for a living, let’s give her a bit of a backstory. What kind of person becomes a lawyer? Was she always so blunt or did that develop during law school? And why is she telling her spouse she’d like a divorce in such a public setting?

Perhaps this is a turning point for Sheila. She became a lawyer because she believes in the justice and the law. Maybe she grew up poor and wanted a stable career in which she could help others. She had planned on becoming a human rights lawyer but then became dazzled by corporate law during law school, the area of law she saw all the dollar signs in. She worked so hard during school and during her articling and first years in the profession that she never saw her husband. The cutthroat world of corporate law hardened her. Perhaps she doesn’t recognize herself anymore but at the same time isn’t even aware of how devastating this news is to her spouse, who supported her all through law school.

Step 4: Keep Writing!

Phew. I could go on and on about Sheila. It’s not hard once you get started. You can see how the writing builds on itself as we use the prompt to help us answer questions about the character.

You can do this with almost any prompt! Just write down the first things that come to mind about the character and go from there. Let some of your first thoughts inform the character’s physical and personality traits, and then delve into more backstory from there. The whole process will feel seamless and natural the more you get into it.

Happy Writing!