Writing a short story – build your characters

Elvis Elvis

For this exercise, we’ll apply a similar principle to the whole-character concept. And in this exercise, we’ll add another wrinkle: you have to work fast.

Speed is the best way to avoid the censor – the evaluating, critical part of your brain that doesn’t like anything you do. In the throes of early creation, it’s the last voice you need to hear. Your mind and senses must be open to capture everything, write everything down, and evaluate it later.

It is possible to outrun the censor. All it takes is determination and practice.

So let’s practice!

WHAT YOU’LL NEED: Laptop or writing pad and paper, stopwatch or watch with timer/second hand

WHERE WE DO THIS: Shopping mall, department store, street market or other crowded locale.


We’ll start light, so you can get the hang of what to do. Position yourself to maximize your observation of people passing by – the food court in your local mall, for example, or on a bench outside a big department store.

Pick one person out of the crowd. Write down whatever it was that caught your attention – an expression, a smile, the way she walked – and write it down.

Writing a short story   build your characters

From that single detail, build a character. Give her a name and birthdate, and then write one page of detail about her. What you write is your choice. Spend the whole page describing what she wore, or give her a page-long fictional backstory leading up to how she happened to walk past your perch. It doesn’t matter.

There is no wrong way to do this. Just write. Flow. Let it happen.

When you’re done, turn IMMEDIATELY to a new page. Do not read what you have just written.


In the film “Man on Fire,” Creasy (Denzel Washington) teaches Pita (Dakota Fanning) how to improve her relay swimming performance. “Fastest in the water, but slowest off the block,” he says. “What do you have to do?” “Get faster off the block,” she replies.

That’s where we are. Fastest off the block outruns the censor.

For this relay, we’ll pick a person again, as we did for relay one. This time, though, once you’ve picked him, we’ll bring another technique called timed writing into play. In this case, you’ll write for five minutes about the person you’ve selected. Again, write about anything you like – whatever occurs to you. The name of the game here is freedom and sponteneity. Let it flow. Worry about it later.

When you’ve finished, flip to a new page. Don’t read what you’ve just written. This is tough, but trust me – it’s worth waiting.


This relay is space-limited rather than time-limited. Once you’ve selected your person, write one paragraph about her. A paragraph is still pretty open and flexible, but twelve sentences is too long. Two is too short. Somewhere between three and five is ideal.

It’s not a math formula. If longer feels right, it is right. Just get your impressions on paper. There is no other goal.

When you’re done, flip to a new page.


Your fourth relay is free-form. Repeat any relay from the previous three, or dream up your own. Whatever is fun and feels good. When you’re finished, get a blank page in front of you and press on.