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University of Oxford

Getting to know them

If you have been working on a ‘back story’ for your own protagonist, you might already have experienced the thrill that comes when a specific piece of character information ‘jump-starts’ a storyline or connects with some aspect of the plot that you have already worked out. Invariably, your main character will change and grow as your story progresses and you will need to remain flexible to that process, and to the possibility of having to adjust your protagonist’s motives and actions, or even your plot, should he or she take the reins and point you in an unexpected direction. Having said that, the more you ‘know’ about your main character before you start to write the better equipped you will be to chart his or her reactions to everything from catastrophe to criticism in a believable and satisfying way.

Group activity: Interviews

This exercise has been designed to show how a character’s circumstances, motivations, dreams and desires can provide the active premise a writer needs to get a story going.

The following links will take you to four very different images – all of young people. You are going to choose one, and imagine that the boy or girl pictured is the protagonist of a YA novel which, as yet, has no theme, no plot and no direction whatsoever.

Here are the four images:

© Licensed by permission of woodleywonderworks under
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic

© Licensed by permission of a-n-d-y-l-e-o-s-s under
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic

© Licensed by permission of the Nicora family under
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic

© Licensed by permission of the Cambodia Trust under
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic

Now imagine that your ‘character’ is sitting opposite you. You are going to ask him, or her, three questions which are listed below. Write down your character’s responses, taking care to follow, word for word, his or her way of speaking. Refer constantly to the image, and add notes, if you wish, about this person’s body language, tone of voice, attitude, appearance – anything you imagine to be relevant.

The questions:

  1. What do you want, more than anything else in the world?
  2. Who, or what, is preventing you from getting it?
  3. What are you going to do about that?

When you have completed your character’s responses write up to 250 words describing a potential crisis or challenge that might lie ahead for this young person, given his or her current circumstances and/or state of mind.

Post your finished piece to the Interviews forum, and respond to what others in the group have written.

Optional activity: Your own characters

Repeat the interview exercise with the protagonist of your own story – you might discover something fundamental, or exciting, or both!

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