Finding inspiration: A fun exercise to help explore and develop characters

This is a post by Marie Borthwick

[jbox color=”platinum”]Welcome to a week-long theme week on the Novel Publicity blog during which we'll cover a series of four posts about finding inspiration. Let's get started with a warm-up exercise.[/jbox]

The “I Know/I Don't Know” exercise is a favorite of mine, something I actually developed on my own and that I'd like to share with you today. That said, I fully acknowledge that there may be others out there that have crafted a similar exercise.

On a sheet of paper write your character's name (first, middle and last – or as much as you have) and draw a vertical line down the middle.

At the top of the left side, write “I Know”

In this column write 1-3 words on each line (not full sentences) that describe your character. The easiest way to do this is just look at your character's name and write what pops into your head. You can also write any other information you do know about your character in this column; the key is to be concise. Try to write from the top to the bottom of the page if you can, although it's okay if you don't (if you need more space, move on to the back of the page; just be sure to draw and label the columns.)

At the top of the right side, write “I Don't Know”

In this column write those pesky questions dancing around in your head. They can be about any aspect of your character you haven’t figured out yet, but here are some tips:

  • Experiences (e.g. “car accident,” “new magic,” “illness,” “falling in love,” etc.) that you don't know how your character should respond to.
  • Beliefs (is he/she moral? is he/she good or bad?, etc.)
  • Appearance (gender, physical features, style, mannerisms, etc.)

Again, try to write to the bottom of the page if you can, although it's okay if you don't (if you need more space, move on to the back of your page; just be sure to draw and label the columns.)

When you’re done, take a breath. The first few times I did this I stumbled and just got more frustrated; it didn't take me long to realize I was thinking too hard. The purpose of this exercise is to get the bits, pieces and questions floating around in your head on to paper. When I saw the columns of what “I Know” and what “I Don't Know,” some things started to click. It made what I knew seem more real and what I didn't know like less of an obstacle.

You can always expand upon this exercise by taking the points from the “I Don't Know” column, writing each one at the top of it's own sheet of paper, and then brainstorming about it on that sheet. Brainstorming should never be limited – sure, use words, but try doodling or cutting pictures out of magazines and taping it to the page and more. You’re a writer and a creative person remember? Don't let anyone tell you differently!

marieprofileMarie has depended on books all her life – for entertainment, for emotional support, and for escape. She enjoys writing on her blog, Write Panic Live, where she shares the high, lows and in-betweens of living with mental illness, her path to becoming a published writer, and all the books she reads along the way. In addition to working on her current WIP, “Route 6”, she has started developing a business to share her love of crafted items, a charity she hopes will spread the hobby of knitting/crocheting to those in need, and has begun taking on developing two series of children’s books to promote social awareness.


Oh I love this! This is cool. 😛

Marie Borthwick

thank you i am glad you liked it, hopefully it will help you! I have fun with it sometimes and see myself as “winning” if there is more in the “i know” column… unfortunately i don’t win that often lmao


Just what I had been looking for! 😀
Usually articles on character development give you long lectures but don’t make the process easy by giving out worked out formulas. Its harder to learn through trial and error after all.

Ella Wild

You give me an idea on how to be more effective as a writer, especially on creating characters to my stories. Thanks you so much for sharing your tips. It’s very helpful to me. 🙂

Laura McHale Holland

I like this exercise. It’s concise, just like you suggest for the column entries, and doesn’t seem like a major effort that would take more time than it’s worth. It’s the kind of thing I could easily do when I just have a little smidge of time, say, at lunch while on my day-job or when I’m feeling almost brain dead after, perhaps, having eaten too much for dinner. Did I just say that? Yup. I overeat sometimes, but that’s a whole other discussion. Thanks for sharing this.

Valerie Ormond

Thanks, Marie – I love this because you made it so simple. Sometimes exercises like this can be a nice distraction to help answer questions we may not even know are lurking. I have to try this now. 🙂

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