This 4-week long course is by Wesleyan University on Coursera
Amy Bloom does an excellent job in this course, a lot of my notes are words that she said throughout the course. I learned about and was reaffirmed of many key elements that are important for character development and character dialogue. I recommend this course to any fiction writer!
Character Sketch Assignment:Choose one of the methods below, one which is least familiar to you, one you have never tried before:
Imagine a character very like you but give them a dramatic external alteration. You might make the character the opposite sex, for example, or make them significantly older or younger. You choose.
Imagine a character very like someone you have observed – but give them a dramatic external alteration. You might make the character the opposite sex, for example, or make them significantly older or younger. You choose.
Create a character purely on the basis of your imagination or intellectual conception.
Create a character using any of the above methods in combination.
Now write a brief character sketch, around 300–500 words, in which you reveal certain aspects of the character. Use a third-person narrator (‘he’ or ‘she’). Here are some things you might like to include in your sketch but this is not an exclusive list – you may not include all of these aspects; you may include other aspects: appearance feelings current circumstances occupation voice attitudes hopes and fears
Read the assignment I wrote, below, then read the feedback I received from fellow writers.
Mr. Smith stood there with his thumbs in his belt loops and tips of his fingers in his pockets; the dark colored belt stood out against his light khaki pants. His khakis were pulled up so high, maybe it was an attempt to cover up his mid-30’s belly, but the tightly tucked-in white button-up shirt did not hide much.
He lifted his left hand to his big, round glasses and pushed them up on his long nose. He wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. I wonder how he got to be so nerdy?There’s no way he has a girlfriend…
Mr. Smith turned with his side-hair slick staying in place and spoke to me in front of the class:
“Mia! Stop daydreaming and finish the reading quiz. You have 15 minutes until the end of class!”
He stormed across the front of the classroom with his hands in his pockets and plopped into his desk chair. A few students snickered at the disruption and a few giggled at the teacher making a scene.
I felt embarrassed by his reaction. So, once my cheek color turned back to normal, I promptly finished the reading quiz.
When the bell rang, I was the last one to drop the quiz off at his desk. He tilted his head down and looked over his glasses at me. “Is there a reason you are distracted today?” He asked in that fatherly tone.
“Why are you so concerned about me? Why not someone else?”
“Because you’re my best student,” he smiled, reclined back in his seat and slid his hands behind his head, “I expect a lot from you and when I see you daydreaming I’m only trying to help.”
“I’ve had a difficult time…”
He forcefully pulled his arms down and sat up, “I get it. I’ve seen it in your writing lately,” he picked up a pen and started twirling it between his fingers, “I wanted to tell you about the high school literary journal. I think you should submit something—it can be anonymous if you choose.”
I stood in front of his desk which was a messy disarray of papers, and just held tightly onto my journal, “you mean get published?”
“Yes. Not many freshmen do it, so I think you would stand out.” He paused and stood up. “I see you write a lot about your mother. I was the same way.”
I stood there like a sponge, soaking in what he was saying, but I couldn’t believe he was being so candid with me. “I, uh—“ was then abruptly saved by the one minute warning bell.
“Go along now, you don’t want to be late to your next class.” He said with his fingers back in his pockets and he nodded his head towards the door.
I don’t know if Mr. Smith creeps me out more or makes me smile more. I guess it hurts me to see students make fun of him, for how personable he is about my writing. No other teacher has made me feel this way before.
It’s the last week of the course! This story was my final assignment, and I received feedback on it from other people in the class.
I sat at the first table in the study section of the library, waiting for my new tutor to show up. Mom said he would be in a red sweatshirt.
I tucked my hair behind my ear and opened up my notebook. Chewing on the end of my pen, I thought back to the day dreams I had earlier in English class, so I started scribbling away:
He took her by the hand and led her into the night… It was that night he embraced her with warm…
“Greetings!” A voice bellowed.
I looked up and saw him wearing a bright red sweatshirt. He was tall, skinny, blonde and beautiful, “ur-are you John Paul Jones?”
“Uh—yeah! But, you can call me JPJ,” he moved his hand to his chest and flung his hair back with a shake of his head, “It’s great to meet you,” he sounded like a total surfer. My heart was racing, he definitely didn’t look like someone who graduated first in his class, or that’s what mom said.
“I’ll take a seat and we’ll get started?” He pulled a chair out, and I realized my mouth was wide open…and so was my notebook! So, I slammed them both shut.
“Yeah, I need to get my grades up or else I’ll need to repeat freshman year,” I admitted, out loud, oh my gosh I don’t even know this guy.
“What do you think we ditch this library scene and go outside to study?” his blue eyes peered at me, and his blond hair was shining in the light as he brushed it back with his fingers.
“Sure—I could go for that,” I sounded nervous.
“Cool. Let’s boogie,” he stood up and headed for the entrance. I had to grab my things quickly and jog to catch up.
Then, he held the door for me as we walked outside.
I held the door for her as we walked outside. It was nice out, a sunny 60 degrees in Pure Michigan. Warm enough to take my sweatshirt off.
Mia was definitely cute. She was an exact image of her mother, but a good 20 lbs lighter, so that meant she had smaller boobs. With no presence on social media, I wasn’t able to look her up ahead of time, but I did find her mom on multiple platforms: Twitter, Facebook, Tinder…
Her daughter was quietly beautiful. Her long eyelashes batted at me when she spoke and then I saw her brown tiger eyes that glowed orange in the sunlight. I was strangely attracted ever since I saw her across the library, feverishly writing in her notebook.
As I sat in the grass next to her and went over her Biology notes from that day, she would make silly comments about her notetaking, “I actually think you have excellent handwriting and your notes are concise,” I nudged her as we were getting to the end of our tutor time. “So, why are you failing these classes? You have a bright mind and take good notes. Better yet, why aren’t you on Twitter or Facebook?”
Her face turned a blush pink as I spun questions her way. The sun made her hair shine and her skin glow, “Well, is this being asked on tutor time, or off tutor time?” She nudged back at me.
“Let me give you a ride home, and we can chat off tutor time,” I nudged her back. “My car is right over there,” I motioned to the parking lot.
“Alright, I guess that will be alright,” she smiled back at me. We grabbed our backpacks and headed to the parking lot. I held the car door for her to get in on the passengers side.
He held the car door for me to get in. My heart was racing in my chest, and I felt a chill that was making me shiver.
He got in the driver’s seat. “Hey, you look a little cold, put this on,” he handed me the red sweatshirt.
“Thanks, but you don’t have to–”
“I insist!” His smile was encouraging. I took a deep breath as I slid his sweatshirt over my head. His smell hit me, like a wave of aromas that I have never experienced before. Just be cool, is what I kept thinking to myself. I’ve never been in a guy’s car before, and the crazy thing is he seemed interested in me. At least interested enough to have an off tutor time chat. I’m sure my mom isn’t even home to see me being dropped off by JPJ, but she might flip if she finds out.
He broke the silence, “So, uh, you’re a really pretty girl, why aren’t you on social media?”
His confidence was attractive and I felt comfortable sharing, “I see other people my age on their phones, all the time, and I don’t have a life on my phone, and I don’t feel the need to scroll through other people’s lives because I have a house of books to read about other people’s lives.” I felt like I was rambling at this point.
“So, you do a lot of reading?”
“Yes, I do. My mom forced me to read and write by locking me in my bedroom with nothing but books and notebooks.” I felt okay sharing this with him. “Right now, I’m reading a lot of Shakespeare because of my English class, but I fell in love with his sonnets.”
JPJ’s face lit right up and he went into character, “Doth thou the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move; Doubt truth to be a liar; But never doubt that I love.”
As he finished, I applauded and was smiling from ear to ear, “Hamlet–my favorite!”
He shook his blonde hair back, perfectly it stayed, and he put his sunglasses on, “Let me get you home before your mom starts to worry.” He started his car and pulled out of the library parking lot.
As I get ready for the last week of the class, I am asked to revise my story. To do this, it’s helpful to read other stories. Below, are the questions that helped me edit my own story.
Note: they came from the online course, linked above.
Editing your writing is very important – some would say the most important aspect of writing. It’s often said that anyone can write but only writers can edit. Now that you have written your first draft and left it to settle for a while, you will need to go back and reflect on what you have written, and make changes accordingly.
Don’t be afraid to cut large parts of it if necessary.
As we have already discussed, you might find that when you have got into the story you can go back and cut out the opening sentences. Some openings may well have been used as a way to get into writing the story, or a particular passage, but the story might be more vibrant and enticing without them.
This week’s coursework, from the online course listed above, brought the opportunity to build one of my main characters more on paper. There is still room for growth, but it gave me a great start.
Physical/biological: age, height, size, state of health, assets, flaws, sexuality, gait, voice.
Mia is a 14 year old female who is a freshman in high school. She looks a lot like her young mom: 5’5” with brown tiger eyes that draw you into a pretty face, and petite 125 lb body. She uses a dark eyeliner application that shows off her long eyelashes, and she maintains her blonde hair highlights with straight hair that falls over the shoulder. She is soft spoken, and usually hides behind her notebook that she journals poetry or thoughts throughout the day. Her wardrobe of choice is jeans and sneakers with a black tank and black hoodie. Her smartphone usually goes in her hoodie pocket, or gets stashed in her backpack while at school. Never carries a purse, just a notebook. Mia is interested in boys, and now that she’s in high school they are starting to catch her attention as her mom has dialed up the sex talk more and more recently. She is usually questioning another character in return or avoiding the answer somehow. Typical teenager?
Mia is not doing well in school because she is not applying herself in class or completing homework outside of class. Writing poetry in her notebook makes her happy, so that is what she focuses on in her free time. Her mom is usually never home, and if she is she’s holed up drinking in her bedroom closet. Mia feels empathetic towards her mother and takes care of her when she is at her lowest with men and alcohol. She longs to have a father, and has seen many men come-and-go dating her mom. She takes out her pain and frustration in her notebook, so using words out loud is harder for her. She is usually quick and to the point when she speaks, but most times too soft to be heard and is cut off.
Mia lives with her mom in her deceased grandparents’ home, a ranch mansion. She was nearly five years old when her grandma and grandpa tragically passed away in a car accident. While that shapes a lot of her lifestyle today, she refuses to speak about her grandparents being dead with her mom. Mia has no relation with her dad, he is not in the picture and never has been. She longs for a male relationship that is father-like. While she is failing all other classes, she is excelling in English. It’s an easy class for her, and her English teacher is pushing her to be a better writer. He pushes her like a father would.
Personal history: major events in their life, including the best and the most traumatic times.
Mia was raised by her grandparents in her infant years, while her mom homeschooled to finish high school. Mia was almost five, and she was living with her mom (who was taking college classes) in a small 2 bedroom apartment, when her grandparents visited to lecture her mom about failing or dropping college classes…and it was that night they got into a fatal accident. Her mom did not go back to college, but almost immediately moved them into the ranch mansion and they were set with finances through trust funds and life insurance. Life seemed more normal living at grandma and grandpa’s house, surrounded with rooms of old items and bookshelves full of books. But, Mia was alone in her room a lot so she would create stories of her own that include imaginary friends and imaginary grandparents. Mom is boss, and when she comes around for discussion or consolation—Mia drops what she’s doing to make mom feel like number one.
Portraying your character—in the 3rd person.
Mia is like a very delicate flower, but her roots are strong and hold her up. She prefers the shade, or shys away from the sun as a retreat to her notebook where she writes. She has raised herself, as her young mother is very absent. As soon as Mia was old enough to write, she would write stories in her notebook about traveling around the world with imaginary friends–just like the stories her grandparents used to tell her about their travels.
Straight blonde highlighted hair falls over her shoulders, dark eyeliner shows off her long eyelashes and when she bats her eyes at you, her brown tiger eyes stare back longingly. Her pretty face and petite body gets her a second glance from most guys when she is noticed in the highschool lineup. Who is this freshman girl? Her wardrobe is basic, and when she takes off her black sweatshirt to reveal a black tank, with jean capris and sneakers, it seems like she has a fashion-forward maturity level of basic beauty.
She sat on the edge of her bed, hunched over, leaning into her notebook–scribbling away. She was writing words of love and wishes for intimacy. She hears a sob outside her bedroom door, so Mia closes her notebook and opens her door to find her mom with her hands over her face, mascara running down her fingers, “Mom, what’s wrong?” asked Mia, as she gave her mom a big hug.
Mom lowered her hands away from her face and she drunkenly muttered, “I just–it was–”
“Another bad night?” Mia asked sternly, and with that: mom raised her hands to her face and started sobbing again. Mia took a step back and continued her stern voice, “I don’t think you’re dating the right guys, and you’re trying way too hard. It shouldn’t be this difficult–”
“Difficult to what?!” Mom snapped back, “find true love? I don’t think I’ll be taking advice from my teenage daughter, who just writes about true love.”
“Grandma and Grandpa were true love! I’ve seen it too!” Mia raised her voice back, and then slammed her bedroom door and retreated back to her bed. In the hunched over position, she leaned into her hands and cried softly into them.
Note: this is an exercise for the online course, listed above. Some material may be inappropriate for younger ages, I have rated it PG-13 due to sex talk.
“You can’t just–give in and have sex with any guy–ever!” My mom went through her whole hand motion routine too, as she was pacing back and forth in my bedroom. I was sitting on my bed with my notebooks scattered around my bedspread.
I pulled my knees into my chest and hugged them with my arms, “Would you just leave me alone? I don’t need to hear about your teenage problems and not knowing about safe sex and committing the dirty deed with a guy on the first date.”
She got stern and started pointing, “my parents did not have this, very uncomfortable, sex conversation with me until I was too old to hear it, and you know what?” She stopped in her pointing-tracks and looked right at me.
I knew the answer to her question, her pain and agony, so I sounded snarky, “you were pregnant with me and you didn’t know it yet.”
There was a dead silence that hung in the air and crept over my words. My feelings are usually hidden within a notebook, so saying this out loud is uncharted territory.
“Why would you say it like that?” Asked my anxious mother, now-turned soft and weepy.
As I fumble for the words to say, “Yo-ou have had this conversation with me a million times.”
“I know, but I never want you to make the same mistake as me. I lost out on so much, I didn’t go to highschool or prom or anything that normal people my age were doing,” she was holding back tears.
I pushed my face into my knees and gave a muffled response, “I know. No sex is better than safe sex.”
“That’s right.” She walked over to my bed, kissed the top of my head, and exited quickly to sulk down the hallway as she walked to her own room.
I quickly grabbed a notebook and opened it up to a fresh page. After scribbling a date at the top, I started writing:
I should be doing my homework, but my mom sidetracked me…again. She’s going on another first date…will he be the chosen one? My dad was not the one…
I slammed the notebook shut and tried to fight the tears that were finding their way out. My mind was racing like wildfire: visions of my mom being my age and having sex and visions of my mom going out on first dates throughout my whole childhood.
I had a list in one of these notebooks with names of men–guys who came around the house. Some stayed longer than others, but no one has stayed forever. There’s only one guy I feel like he could be a good father figure, if he ever came back.
I started to think about the chant my mom ingrained in my brain: “No sex is better than safe sex.” But, my mom doesn’t follow the no sex rule, why should I? As long as I’m safe, I won’t get pregnant the first time like her...
Note: this is an exercise for the online course, linked above.
Turn on the radio and take note of the first thing that is mentioned. Use it as the basis for either the start of a story or an entire story – whichever, it should be no more than 500 words. Imagine a character, someone who is central to what the story is about. Try to use clear, vivid language so that your reader can see the character. Use some of the characterization techniques: -physical description -thoughts and inner life -personality -where the character is located -the character’s back story -how the character acts in the world.
I look over at the bedside table and see his wedding ring standing by itself—the solo silver chain shackles that he slipped out of right before creeping into the hotel bed with me. My stomach was screaming mad for not sleeping in my own house—nothing about this felt normal.
I turn myself over in bed and peel the white sheet from my skin as I stand up. I pick my clothes up-off the floor, get dressed and throw my curly brown hair into a ponytail. Then I start to think: this man that made me feel comforted and safe — is not even here anymore! He went home to his wife. I am alone and need to get home.
I rush over to my clutch, that was thrown on the hotel desk, and pull my smartphone out. My blurry eyes don’t see many notifications — just a text from Mia at 9:02pm ‘goodnight, mom.’ My heart sunk down in my chest and I opened up a text to Ferdinand, my driver.
‘So sry, need ride home its sos but im ok” is what my fingers tapped in the keyboard, and I hit send. Then I grabbed Vinnie’s wedding ring off the bedside table and stuffed it in my jean pocket.
Within 20 minutes, my driver was at the hotel picking me up. Now this is a man who makes me feel comfortable and safe: Ferdinand — my man.
“So sorry for all the late night driving requests lately,” I mustered from the back seat once we were driving down the road. Clear of the hotel.
“It’s ok, Miss Mandy. I know you are trying to find a suitor, and as I would support your parents and drive them wherever and whenever they needed — I will do the same for you.”
I felt a tear roll down my cheek. The streetlights outside were illuminated in the night sky and they seemed to be buzzing by faster and faster. I had to close my eyes, “I’m going to be sick,” I was able to say loud enough for Ferdinand to pull over so I could swing open the car door and stumble out far enough to puke on the side of the road.
Once I got home the feeling to puke was gone, but the feeling of regret was intense. I set everything on the kitchen island: my clutch, my phone, my book…his ring. Then I stumbled down the hall to Mia’s room.
As I embark on writing my first novel, it’s done alongside this course. In the first two weeks there has been opportunity to find my own writing space and journaling style. I am also learning from other writers, listening to other writers, and creating the confidence that is needed to write a book…among many other things!
Jenni Laplow – April 29, 2020
Completing the course was a challenge and accomplishment all rolled into one. I am happy to share some of my notes and assignments from the class that helped me make progress on my novel: