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Not Who You Think They Are: A Character-Building Exercise

Quick! Describe your main character in a list of words.

Got a solid list going? Awesome. Now take every word on that list… and try to think of a time when your character isn't that way.

I know - this sounds odd. But run with me for a second. When's the last time you were the exact same way, in every situation, with every person, at every time of day, in every emotional state? If you're human, the answer is probably… never. (If you're a robot, the jury is still out on that one.)

We like to think we have immutable selves: that I is I, and me and me. In elementary school, we're asked to describe ourselves in three words to the class, and the process of solid word-based identity formation continues from there - in the form of dating profiles, resumes, and Twitter descriptions. To be consistent, to always be me, is to be secure.

But the truth is, who me is can change, literally from minute to minute. And it's by looking at the differences between Me 1 to Me 2, not at the similarities, that you can learn the most about yourself - and about your character.

Cue examples!
  • A character who's clearly level-headed and sane may participate in an earth-shattering argument over the TV remote control… when their favorite show is on. (This character is seriously passionate about the things they like.)
  • A character who's almost always friendly, relaxed, and peaceable may become completely irritable when faced with an overwhelming homework assignment. (This character doesn't handle pressure well.)
  • A character who's cynical and sarcastic may become soft-hearted and nice when babysitting their four-year-old nephew. (This character is hardened but doesn't want to spread their hardness - they're secretly hopeful, which makes them vulnerable to having their hope crushed in an upcoming plot point.) (Sad!)
Hidden behind each bolded sentence above is a question that may lead to even more character-building: why? Why is that character so passionate and willing to sacrifice their level-headedness for a TV show? Why does that character suck at handling pressure? Why is that character still hopeful… and what awful thing could happen to them that could make them no longer soft-hearted, even around their nephew? (Is there anything that could do that?)

Here are some different situations you could imagine your character in, to see if who they are in each of them varies at all from the list of words you came up with at the beginning of this post. And don't forget to ask, why?

Is your character different…?
When they're with their best friendWhen they're with someone they don't likeWhen they're at a partyWhen they're at the movie theater and the people behind them have been chatting loudly for the past 10 minutesWhen interacting with a 3-year-oldWhen interacting with a 95-year-oldWhen they're alone for the nightWhen they're feeling overwhelmedWhen a friend calls them at 3AM needing to cry about somethingWhen it's their first day at a new jobWhen the spaceship they're on is about to be attackedWhen they've just been named the heir to the royal throneWhen they're betrayedWhen they make a big mistakeWhen a person of authority is yelling at themWhen a person of questionable authority is yelling at themWhen they have to wake up earlyWhen their favorite possession is missingWhen they're under the influence of [insert substance of choice - like orange soda, right?]

I hope this post has been useful to your character-building endeavors! How are you different from situation to situation?
Emilia Plater

Emilia is a YA author who avoids studying, food that isn't covered in cheese, and waking up before 10:30AM whenever possible. A bundle of confusions.

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  1. That all makes perfect sense to me! I can be nervous in new situations, but the life of the party in others. Comfort level and what's at stake can really change a person. There's always that "this seems out of character" comment experts like to throw at you,'s all so subjective. As it should be. As it always is.

  2. I decide to post my comment for this post on Tumblr:

  3. I love this idea. It's a great way to see if your character is really "lived in" and well rounded. =D

  4. Great post here. I always sort of knew that this idea existed, but have never thought about it beforehand (which will be helpful in the future!). I'm going to go make lists for all my characters now!


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Item Reviewed: Not Who You Think They Are: A Character-Building Exercise Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Emilia Plater