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Short Story Writing Prompts: The Sybil Method

Elvis Elvis

Some of you may be old enough to remember Flora Rheta Schrieber’s nonfiction book Sybil, the true account of a woman suffering from severe split personality disorder. According to the book, Sybil had no fewer than sixteen separate personalities. Two of them were male.

If you are old enough to remember the book, don’t worry … I won’t give your secret away. If not, you can still relax – I only use it to illustrate this week’s exercise.

Where do our characters come from? Have you ever been asked that? Of all the facets of our peculiar form of wholesale invention, characters are often the most intriguing. They appear to be people plucked out of thin air, given light and life on the page through some mysterious alchemical process.

I’m not going to debate about the process, which varies from writer to writer. But about character itself, I can say this: if you’re not sure how you come up with them, or how to bring that process under conscious control, this exercise may help.

My experience with characters is that they often begin life based on a real person, but inevitably end up becoming a totally unique mash-up of the original inspiration and me. Sometimes aspects of another person I know creep in there as well, adding more spices to the soup.

Try the following freewriting exercise:

- Pick a person you know well – a member of your family, perhaps, or your partner. Put that person in a fictional situation. Don’t just write biographical sketch; look at it as an exercise in invention as well as characterization.

Here are some suggestions if you have trouble kickstarting:

1) Your character enters a bank in the process of being robbed by several armed men. Write about how he reacts to the situation.
2) At a friend’s funeral, your character bumps into an old flame – a partner she hasn’t seen in years. Write a scene around their encounter.
3) Your character comes home early from work to find his partner in bed with another person. Write about his reaction to this.

Short Story Writing Prompts: The Sybil Method

Feel free to use your own scenario if you wish. Give yourself three minutes of timed writing. When you’re finished, take a five-minute break before coming back to what you’ve written with the following questions:

1) Is this character exactly like the person you based her on? Does she react in the same way? Talk the same way?
2) If he is different from the person you based him on, what are the differences? Where did those differences come from? You? Another person? Are they ideals or values you respect, but have not found in people you know?

The object of this exercise is to provide insight into your own process. I have begun many characters based on people I know, only to have them become patchwork quilts based on a half dozen people. Invariably, at least some of who they are and how they react to the world around them comes from me – either directly from my attitudes, or from a reversal of those attitudes.

Your characters may reflect a desire to write about certain situations or themes. You may create the character first, and let her decide what her story is about. There is no right or wrong method. Try anything, and be open to the possibility of methods you haven’t tried before. The results may surprise you.

If, at some point, you make a conscious decision – a craft decision – that influences the development of your characters, it will be easier to make conscious changes to your character’s beliefs and attitudes if you know where they came from. Knowledge is power; as a writer, part of your job is “knowing” as much about your characters as you do about your best friend.