Use Directed Freewriting to Flesh out Your Characters

I’ve found that my single most useful tool for fleshing out a character – better than any lists or profile sheets – is simply freewriting in the character’s first person voice. But rather than sitting in front of a blank screen only to fill it with details of eye color, hair color and family history, I give my character a topic – usually a topic that ties to my book. Directed freewriting is like journaling but with a prompt.

So, for example, if my novel is about a tween named Sam coming of age, I might freewrite on “What Sam thinks about his first kiss.” Or let’s say Sam’s mom decides to have another baby – who would now be 12 years younger than Sam – I might freewrite about “What Sam thinks of his Mom’s growing belly” or “How Sam imagines life with the new baby.”

Even though the topics may be specific, freewriting allows for tangents, redundancies, brainstorming, voice experimentation and character discovery.

As part of my prep for NaNoWriMo I wrote detailed character sketches for my novel. It’s essential to know your characters well, like you know your best friend or even better, like you know yourself. And once you do, characters will tell you their stories.

While the categories from available character questionnaires provide great food for thought, I found writing narrative descriptions of my characters – freewriting about them – much more useful. Why?

* I can flesh out character thoughts and tangents that might not have a category on the questionnaire.

* I can write on topics that are essential to my story.

* I can explore how characters feel about each other.

* If there’s a story in a character’s background, I can tell that story.

* I can write as ideas spring forth instead of following a rigid list.

* I often write in the voice of my narrator, main character or secondary characters which helps me find the voice of my novel.

But possibly the most significant discovery that’s comes from freewriting in character is …

* Characters reveal the plot. Yes. All my character narratives have inspired not only intriguing but necessary plot lines in my story.

So how do I find topics for my characters to talk about. Basically I list backstory, events, turning points, plot points, settings, and people that I expect to or have already come up in my novel. Then I choose a character – sometimes two or three – and have then freewrite on that topic.

Sometimes I’ll even set a timer or establish a word count. This forces me to dive deeper. It’s often in those final few words that an idea reveals itself and I end up writing more.

Even if the entry appears to be endless babble, I usually find a nugget or two to use in some critical scene. At the very least, freewriting takes me deeper into my character and subordinate characters, allowing me to make necessary connections, in hopes that my readers will connect to my characters as well.

And if you’re feeling really wacky, journal from a point of view that has no relevance to the scene. I’m not asking you to make up a whole new character here, but simply have one of your existing characters write about a person, place, event, idea that, you think, bears no relevance to that character in your story. You might find connections that you never knew were there – and an interesting detail or entire subplot for your novel.

Now, even though I’ve finished my novel, I plan on spending this week freewriting about plot points, scenes and stories that came up in my first draft.

Karen S. Wiesner in her Feb. 2009 Writer’s Digest article “Your Novel Blueprint: Turn your Dream Novel into a Reality by Taking Some Tip from the Worksite” says that

“Goals and motivations are constantly evolving (not changing necessarily, but growing in depth, intensity and scope) to fit character and plot conflicts. Your character’s goals and motivations will evolve every time you introduce a new story spark because he’s modifying his actions based on the course his conflicts are dictating.

Beginning goals and motivations don’t generally change as much as they become refined to the increasing intensity of the conflicts …”

So today, I’ll be diving further into the depths of my characters’ goals and motivations. How? Freewriting, of course.

For a related article on freewriting for character discovery see
Let Characters Reveal Themselves: Freewriting Leads to a Character-Driven Story