Character Brainstorming Tricks

Ever get stuck trying to flesh a character out and decide to use writing prompts to get some context? Prompts are a great way to flesh out bits of a character you don’t always think about. But if you’re like me, you write fantasy, and basically all writing prompts and character exercises are about contemporary worlds. Here’s a few designed to help you build more rounded characters in fantasy worlds. Several of these can be used in contemporary worlds, as well, with minor tweaking.

1. Your character is standing at the edge of a battlefield.

What do they feel? Why are they there? What do they do when confronted with the sight? Write two paragraphs explaining their emotional reactions, their goals, and their actions, including at least some explanation of why this battlefield matters to them (i.e., maybe it’s an old battle where a family member died, or a recent battle they fought in, or a recent battle they didn’t fight in but are now stealing from the dead bodies of).

2. Your character comes face to face with a creature they thought was a myth.

How do they react to this strange creature? Do they call it by the mythical name, or assume their myth is false and try to investigate? Do they run, think they’re dreaming, or try to reassess their world view? Write two paragraphs explaining their experience, and in the process, give some sense of what the creature is they have come across.

3. Have your character describe something they have always wanted but never been able to have.

This can be something they can’t afford, something they have only ever heard of from travelers, something in myths and tales, or a social connection they don’t have (i.e., lover, lost parents, sibling). Make sure they don’t use descriptions they wouldn’t know (a farmer in a humid climate with low technology would have no idea what a forest fire is) and try to capture their worldview in the description.

4. Your character is hungry.

How do they get food? Do they have food on hand, and what type of food do they get? Do they have to ask someone to get them food? Do they have to go work in order to afford food? Make sure that your description includes their opinion of their status in regards to others around them, as well as how commonly they perform the steps you describe.

5. Write a conversation between your character and someone with a different world view.

The conversation can be about anything that is not their world view differences (i.e., their children, the weather, the looming prospect of war). Try to illustrate the differences in world view without directly stating them.

6. Your character has a meeting that is finally going to get them something they have always wanted or needed, but a family member gets into trouble and needs help at the same time.

Does your character go to their meeting, or help their family? Who is their family member, and how does your character feel about them in general? Write at least two paragraphs describing the decision and your character’s reactions to it.

7. Your character is visiting a new location.

Describe how they evaluate the visit. Do they notice architecture or social differences? Signs of wealth or opportunities for exploration? Write a short scene in which the only action is the character walking through this new location. Use their reactions and observations to reveal what about the location interests them.

8. What myths, legends, religions, or traditions does your character believe in?

Write at least two paragraphs outlining their views on myths, religions, and other traditions, spiritual or otherwise.

9. Your character’s closest friend or family member moves away, or, alternatively, they move away from their closest friends and family.

What does your character attempt to do on their first day without their usual support group? Write a short scene in which your character goes through their day without the people they usually rely on. Make sure they face at least one challenge they would usually go to their friends or family for help with and decide how they resolve the situation now that they don’t have that support.

10. Your character encounters someone less fortunate than they are.

Do they attempt to help the person, or leave them alone? If they try to help, in what way do they help? Write a short scene in which your character talks to someone who has suffered worse than your character and describe how your characters feels, what they do, and how they view their interaction with this person.

Managing Reader Feedback

So you’ve written your first draft, gone through editing and cleaned up all the side tracks that didn’t go anywhere or got abandoned or just felt weird, and you have a solid, reader-ready copy of your book. You open up your advice source of choice and it says “get reader feedback” or sometimes “get critique partners” or occasionally “get beta readers.” It always fascinates me that there are sources that tell you to get beta readers after finishing your first round of self-edits. This is a terrible idea. Let me explain why.

What is a beta reader?

I suspect that the main reason for the erroneous suggestion above is a misunderstanding of what beta readers really are. In short, beta readers are readers. They’re not going to tell you how to improve the line-level writing of the book and they aren’t going to suggest improvements to your concept or ask if a particular character is necessary for the book because they’re only in a couple scenes. Their job is to read the book as if it was published and point out things that would make them either really excited for your book (i.e., oh wow, I never saw that plot twist coming. That’s really cool!) or consider putting your book down (i.e., um, sorry, but the chapter where the character goes to history class is not working for me. It was super boring.). Your job is to take the knowledge of what did work and what didn’t work for each of the readers and decide what changes, if any, need to be made.

This probably sounds like I’m arguing against myself—after all, don’t you want to know what works and what doesn’t for your next round of edits—but this is actually all bad for the first reader feedback stage. For the first stage you need someone who can suggest solutions and who is trained to look past the poorly implemented writing to see the idea behind and help bring that to life. You need a critique partner, and preferably more than one.

How is a critique partner different from a beta reader?

The most important difference between a critique partner and a beta reader is that a critique partner is expected to suggest solutions to issues, while a beta reader is only expected to point those problems out. There are other differences, largely in the complexity of the concern presentation but also in the stretch-scope of the role.

So, for example, a beta reader might tell you “this section didn’t hold my interest.” They might even say “the characters here didn’t feel natural and I wasn’t interested in their decisions.” That’s all great information and can inform your next decisions. But a critique partner would say “The characters here didn’t feel natural. Remember how MC reacted to a similar situation in chapter 3? They got really angry and glared, brooded about the issues for a week, then plotted a major assassination. Here MC has a very similar thing and just starts yelling and hacking at people. That doesn’t fit the character.” In early stages of editing, you need the more in depth discussion to decide which of those actions is more like your character so you can harmonize the character reactions. Obviously this is a pretty simplistic example—if you have this wide a disparity between responses you should probably have a strong character arc leading from one to the other, not an “oops, mis-remembered that” situation—but the point holds. A beta reader is a reader who will tell you what they enjoyed reading and what they disliked. A critique partner is a partner who will evaluate the manuscript to discuss elements that work or don’t and why they work or don’t. Let’s look at a few examples of how the feedback will differ:

Type of error/issueTypical Beta Reader responseTypical Critique Partner response
Minor grammatical issues (I.e., missing punctuation or incorrect verb tense)Two common responses:

1. If prevalent throughout, will likely note that “grammar issues made the read difficult to engage with”

2. If rare, will likely not say anything
Will usually highlight the issues, and depending on the prevalence (and their personal preference) may explain the rule that makes the error an issue
Character personality changes mid book without warningWill usually say the characters don’t make sense or seemed to be poorly developedWill usually discuss the altered personality from one scene to the next, pointing out how and why it is inconsistent and may even suggest changes to keep the character consistent
Plot doesn’t make senseWill usually say that they were confused and/or couldn’t follow the action of the bookWill usually point out plot holes, missing explanations, and/or make suggestions for how to bridge the gaps while maintaining the intent of the book
Setting is weak and/or confusingMay ask for world details, or may say that they had trouble visualizing the settingWill usually suggest places in the text where setting details can be added, possibly even referencing types of senses commonly excluded and how they could add depth at given moments
Too much information or information given in an inappropriate locationWill usually say the book got boring, slow, or confusing at the specific locationWill usually drop the dreaded “don’t infodump” warning, possibly tell you not to spout your entire backstory in one long rant, and have surprisingly little advice on how to rectify the issue beyond “cut some of this”

Now you may look at the list above and think “but why would I ever use a beta reader? Critique partners are better in every way, right?” Well, no. But this is exactly why I said a beta reader right out of self-editing is a terrible idea. Beta readers serve a very specific purpose, and it’s not the same purpose as critique partners. Beta readers are like beta testers for a video game—their primary purpose is to tell you if the story is interesting from an outside perspective. The more rough edges the work has, the more likely they are to tell you the book sucks even if they would actually like the finished product.

A critique partner, on the other hand, is more like the quality analysis department of the video game company. They probably like the book—they’ll do a better job if they do, in fact—but their job is to help smooth out the rough edges and bring the book to it’s greatest potential. A critique partner should never tell you a book isn’t good enough, interesting enough, or doesn’t have enough potential to be worth your time. The worst a critique partner should ever say is “the concept might work, but this presentation doesn’t so you might want to try re-evaluating the way you approach this concept.” Any critique partner who tells you to give up—whether on a specific book or on writing in general—should be immediately removed from your pool of critique partners. A beta reader, however, is perfectly within their rights to tell you a particular book doesn’t seem marketable.

So how do I know what feedback I need?

This question has a pretty fluid range of answers, and only you can know what stage you’re at, but here’s a few guidelines to help. Typically a critique partner is early in the process—in some cases even before you finish a draft, depending on your process. Critique partners help you refine elements of your story, improve your writing skill, and catch major flaws in style and presentation before they permeate the entire book. Beta readers are later in the process and give you a taste of what readers will think after you publish. They may find plot holes or inconsistent characters, but primarily they are to tell you whether or not the book is interesting to read. Beta readers are particularly good at helping you locate places where readers are likely to misunderstand what you wrote in unusual or unexpected ways.

As a rule of thumb, if you just finished a self-edit or are looking for ways to solve known problems, find a critique partner. If you think the book might be ready for publication but are unsure how it will be received, find a beta reader.

What if someone asks me to read for them?

Just about every writer is asked, at one point or another, to read someone else’s work and offer feedback. There’s only one piece of advice I can give for this situation Try, to the best of your ability, to pretend like you aren’t a writer.

The thing about writers is that every time they hear an idea they start thinking about how they would implement that idea. But when you’re reading someone else’s work, what you would do doesn’t matter. All that matters is how this writer was trying to accomplish the idea, and how well they actually did. So, pretend you aren’t a writer, try to figure out what the writer is hoping to present, and suggest toward that goal.

This works whether you’re asked to beta read or to be a critique partner. As a beta reader, your job isn’t to be a writer anyway. You should be focusing on whether you would pick the book up for yourself. As a critique partner, your job is to nurture the story the writer is trying to create. To do that, you need to set aside your own interests and writing style and evaluate what the writer wanted to make.

I can tell you from experience in four different writer’s groups all around the United States that this skill is extremely rare. I was often hailed as the best of the group at giving a critique because people thought I saw into what they were trying to do. I rarely knew for sure what the goal was and I was often wrong in my suggestions. But what I did do was try to match the image the writer was creating rather than mold the story into the image I would have created in their place. One of my closest friends in one of these groups almost convinced me to turn my epic fantasy series into a romance because she was most interested in the romantic subplot. She wasn’t malicious (in fact I genuinely valued her feedback), she just thought that thread of the story was most interesting and so she pushed me to develop it until I was having trouble finding the rest of the story. If someone wants you to read for them, don’t be that well-intentioned usurper who derails the entire story because you’re thinking about what you would have written.

Practice finding the thread the writer is trying to create and help nurture it. And look for critique partners who will do the same.


All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

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Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

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