I recently shared a writing exercise that encouraged you to get into a character’s head. Today’s exercise asks you to go a step further and explore characters and ideas that are your polar opposites.
One of the most exciting and challenging aspects of being a writer is creating characters. It is an opportunity to step outside of your own reality and take on a completely different persona. Unless you’re an actor, an undercover agent, or just plain crazy, you don’t get many chances in life to do that.
Writing also lets us explore ideas and share our thoughts, opinions, and feelings on a wide range of topics. To Kill a Mockingbird addressed racism, The Da Vinci Code critically explored religious doctrine, and The Hunger Games examined troublesome aspects of our society, particularly glam culture, class systems, war, and violence among teenagers.
As a fiction writer, there will be times when you need to get into the head of a character who is your polar opposite. You’ll need to have a deep comprehension of ideologies that are not aligned with your own. If you can’t do that, then your story will lack believability.
Today’s fiction writing exercises give you practice in stepping out of your shoes so you can walk in someone else’s.
For characters to truly resonate with readers, they must be vibrant and stir the audience’s emotions. Readers need to become attached to the characters, feel sympathy, compassion, even love (or hate) for them. It’s not easy to fabricate people (or other beings) that don’t really exist, have never existed, yet make them seem real. But it can be done.
So how do writers achieve this great feat?
Much credence has been given to the old adage write what you know. Base a character on a friend or family member or yourself. But what fun is that? If you’re an accountant by day, do you really want to play an accountant in your fantasy world too? Probably not. And when you create a character, that’s pretty much what you’re doing, playing a role. You must get into the character’s mind, live the life, absorb the environment in which the character lives. You have to be your character, even if you have absolutely nothing in common with that character.
Fiction Writing Exercises
Each fiction writing exercise below encourages you to get into a mindset that opposes your own way of thinking or existing. Try one exercise or try them all — just make sure to have fun.
Exercise #1: Write a personal essay from the perspective of someone who is your polar opposite.
If you grew up in the big city, write as a country dweller. If you grew up on a farm or lived in a small town all your life, write about an army brat who was raised living in dozens of towns, going to different schools each year. Are you a stay-at-home, married parent? Write as a swinging single making it big in the big apple. If you’re a successful businessperson, write as a prison inmate who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks.
You can also write as your ideological opposite. If you’re Buddhist, write from the perspective of a Christian. If you’re Christian, write from the perspective of an atheist. Are you a political junkie? Write from the viewpoint of the political party you oppose.
For the essay, focus on something you have never experienced or that you disagree with. If you are from the city and you’re writing about the country, write a descriptive essay about a farm setting. If you’re a liberal writing as a conservative, choose an issue and write an essay arguing for the conservative position on that issue.
The idea is to get outside of your comfort zone and explore a different way of life or mode of thinking than the one you know. You can then use this exercise to develop a character who is wildly different from you.
Excercise #2: Write a scene with two characters who are opposites.
Create two characters: one who is just like you (write yourself into the scene if you want) and one who is not like you at all. Write a scene that explores their differences. Here are some suggestions:
- An old-fashioned rancher and a highly successful, modern urban businesswoman are seated next to each other on a plane.
- A Democratic state politician and a Republican lobbyist get stuck in an elevator together.
- Someone who is devoutly religious gets into a deep conversation with an atheist at a party.
There is only one rule here: Both characters must be sympathetic. In other words, you cannot make the character who is your opposite into any kind of villain or antagonist, and neither character will change his or her views or lifestyle by the end of the scene. Your goal is to gain understanding, not make a statement.
Exercise #3: Live your dreams and realize your nightmares.
A lot of people are terrified of public speaking. They may or may not have the desire to get up and talk to a crowd, but it doesn’t matter because their fear prevents them from doing so. And we all have dreams — some are goals that we can or will pursue, but other dreams are far-off fantasies that we know will never come to fruition.
For this exercise, you’ll write a short story or scene in first person. In the scene, you’ll do something that you’ve never done — something you may never do in reality but can certainly tackle in a piece of fiction.
Here are some examples:
- Greatest fear: Either write a scene where you overcome your greatest fear and face the thing that terrifies you, or write as a character who does not have this fear and therefore faces it with ease. For example, if you have a fear of flying, write as an airplane pilot.
- Dreams and goals: Have you ever wanted to travel somewhere but haven’t gotten around to it? Do you hope to someday find the love of your life or become a star in your career field? Are you working toward your dreams and goals? Write as a character who is living the life you hope to live someday.
- Fantasy: Do you have a crush on a celebrity? Have you ever wished you possessed magical powers? Ever wondered what it would be like to live in the far-off future or the distant past? Write as a character living out your fantasies.
The idea here is to do something in writing that you’ve never done in real life. It can be something you might still someday achieve or it could be something impossible or unlikely.
Fiction Writing Exercises for Fun and Focus
Fiction writing exercises like these will help you when you’re writing about characters who are not like you in significant ways. These exercises will also expand the types of characters you feel comfortable bringing into your stories.
If any of these exercises stick and you get really into it, write several pages, or try doing the exercise again with different characters. You might unveil a new side of yourself that you didn’t know you had. You might find it completely uncomfortable and decide to go back to writing what you know, but at least you will have tried something new.
Remember, fiction writing exercises are supposed to be fun, but their purpose is to challenge you to try new things and think in new ways, so be sure to truly step out of your shoes and go beyond your comfort zone.
Feel free to post comments about your character. Who or what will you become? What shoes are you going to step into when you step out of your own?
By Melissa Donovan
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