Given that I’ve become nearly obsessed over the past few months by journals and the keeping of them, no one should be surprised by my desire to work them into my character’s lives.
A character’s journal could easily be an important plot object, and not just in a “love interest finds her diary” kind of way; but they don’t have to be, either. Just mentioning it in passing adds to a character’s richness by giving us a glimpse of their routine. Or their not-routine, if someone means to be keeping a journal but only writes in it when they’re distraught, pouring out their emotions; or if they’re forgetful and they simply can’t establish the habit. All of those things say something about the person you’re creating.
Actually getting to read the character’s journal can take the reader a step further inside their brain. In Life Is Strange (no spoilers, I promise), the journal entries serve a functional purpose in recording the events of the previous episodes, so you can look back and remember the choices you made in-game; but they’re also another layer to Max’s distinctive, compelling voice. You see the scenes play out, but then, reading her journal later, you get below her surface actions and reactions, into her feelings. (I cannot say enough about how brilliant the structure and storytelling were in that game. Play it. Even if you’re not a gamer, just to pull it apart and look at it as an example of teenage characters written well, time manipulation done without inconsistency, narrative flow around player choice, and OMG FORESHADOWING.)
So, some prompts on the extra depths of meaning journals can give your characters:
- Which of your characters would keep a journal, and which wouldn’t? Of those who do, would they be art journals or diaries? Or maybe the hyper-organization of a bullet journal? A synthesis of more than one type?
- Is keeping the journal a habit, a fixed part of their day? Morning, evening, or whenever they can squeeze in the time? Do they write a page a day, or however much or little they want to?
- What does the journal look like? A plain notebook, so no one at school or work suspects it’s anything personal, or a fancy leather-bound journal hung with charms, or bound with a lock or clasp?
- Do they keep their journal with them all the time to jot down notes in it, or to write whenever they have a moment, or does it stay in one place, like a home office or a bedroom?
- Is the journal a physical object at all? Does your character bare their soul on a social media site instead? If so, under their real name, or a handle? Are their readers/followers people they know offline, and if they’re not, what would happen if someone they knew in “real life” found this online space of theirs?
- If you need help exploring a character’s emotional response to a plot point, try writing a journal entry about it in their voice. What could they express in a private space like a journal that they wouldn’t say to someone else?
(If you missed it, you can see the first set of character-development prompts here.)
Since I’ve spent a big chunk of today catching up on household chores, leaving less time for writerly endeavors, I thought it would be a good time to offer another set of prompts. And this set is inspired by those very chores!
Showing your characters doing mundane tasks like cooking and cleaning isn’t necessary for a lot of stories–but if a person’s apartment is always magically spotless without the story ever mentioning how they maintain it, well, that can come off as lazy writing. People have to cook (or live on take-out), people have to clean (or live in messy places), people have to take out the trash and do laundry and scrub the toilet. Or they have to hire someone else to!
Sprinkling in little details about how or when these things get done will make your characters, and their homes, seem more real. (Usually. As with all writing advice, use it judiciously.)
- Food: do they cook for themselves, go out to eat a lot, or order in? What sorts of meals do they make or order? How often do they buy groceries? Are they diligent about keeping the fridge clean, or do they leave food in there long after it’s gone bad?
- Laundry: How often does it get done? Early in the morning, during the day, or late at night? In a larger household, who does it? Does Mom do it for everyone or are the kids responsible for their own after they’re old enough?
- Bathroom cleaning: spotlessly maintained or slightly funky? Old stuff in the medicine cabinet? Damp towels on the floor?
- Dishes: Are they washed by hand or a dishwasher? After every meal? Once a day? Piled up until nothing clean is left and someone has to wash a spoon and bowl just to eat their cereal in the morning?
- Kitchen cleaning: Are the counters clean or spotty? Fallen crumbs collecting in the corners of the room? Refrigerator air vents clogged with dust and wheezing?
There could certainly be more, but you get the basic idea–and some chores would be specific to the setting. Like if someone lives in an ultra-modern, minimalist home with floor-to-ceiling windows, they’d probably care a lot more about keeping them clean than I do about my normal frame windows.
Which I really don’t. They don’t get that dirty anyway…
So dig into your characters with these and see if they help you enrich your story. And have fun with them!
These can be opening lines, integrated into dialogue, or just jumping-off points for a theme.
- “What are you so afraid of?”
- “Who told you that?”
- “When does this need to be finished?”
- “How did that get there?”
- “Why aren’t you answering my calls?”
- “What is it you really want, then?”
- “Who are you looking for?”
- “When are you coming over?
- “How was I supposed to know?”
- “Why won’t you tell me what’s going on with you?”
Just a quickie today. Have fun with them!
Because romance is what I do!
- A is moving into an apartment in the building where B lives, struggling with heavy furniture alone. B offers to help and A takes them out to lunch after as a thank-you.
- A and B are both runners that follow the same path through the park, seeing each other nearly every day, but they never speak to each other until A takes a bad fall and sprains their ankle, and B stops to help.
- (YA) A is a mid-year transfer student and gets B as a lab partner in science class, because there was an odd number of students before and B had been working alone.
- “I feel like the stars are brighter when I’m with you.”
- “Can I kiss you?”
- “Anyone ever taken you to the zoo on a date before?”
- “I’ve never felt like this about anyone else.”
Story Mashes–Write a story including:
- A swimming pool, a thunderstorm, and a first kiss
- A case of mistaken identity, some Chinese takeout, and getting asked out on a date
- A library, candles, and an emotional epiphany
Just for funsies.
- “I don’t think it’s supposed to be that shade of red.”
- “Next time, bring a bigger trash can!”
- “I swear I didn’t do it.”
- “Who was that you were talking to?”
- “I’ll be over right after I strangle my little brother.”
- “Only if you come with me.”
- “Where did you leave the blowtorch?”
- “I just want to know the truth.”
- “Right, the cat got in there all by himself.”
- “I’m thinking about moving to London.”
Feel free to use these however you like, and if you post something you wrote from one, let me know so I can check it out!
Continuing my brainstorming theme, I’ve dredged the depths of my brain for questions to ask yourself about your characters. I don’t consider this list a comprehensive character questionnaire–those are useful tools, certainly, but whenever I try to fill one out I end up dissatisfied with the dry and often irrelevant nature of some of the questions. I’m calling these prompts instead, because you can cherry-pick the ones that seem best suited to your character; and you can answer them simply in one sentence if you like, but you could also delve deep and write up a whole study, if something inspires you.
(For space and simplicity, I’m going to use “they” pronouns in place of repeating “your character” endlessly.)
- Do they remember their dreams, and if so, what do they dream about?
- If they could change one decision made in their past, what would they do differently, and how would their life be changed by it?
- If they lost their home and belongings to a disaster (fire, tornado, etc.) where would they go? Who would they stay with, and why?
- What qualities do they value most in their friends and loved ones?
- Who in their family is most important to them, and why?
- What aspects of themselves do they try hardest to hide from others?
- If your character has a secret, who else in their life knows, and why are they trusted with it?
- What skill or hobby do they want to learn, but haven’t? And what has prevented them from learning it?
- What would motivate them to uproot themselves from their current life and start over elsewhere? Could something even do that?
- Under what circumstances would they commit a crime, and how serious a crime would it be?
Have fun poking and prodding at your darlings with these.