Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Getting to Know You - Character Wheel exercise

I've spent the past few days working on a character wheel for the protagonist of a young adult novel I'm writing called SCHISM, which deals with religion and homophobia. The character wheel is a great exercise I got from a workshop by Shannon Riggs at the SCBWI Oregon Conference this spring. Basically, each spoke of your wheel represents an aspect of your character - things like family, friends, school or job, religion, hobbies or interests, romance or pets, strengths, weaknesses, quirks, wants/needs, home, etc. You can add spokes, change the spokes depending.

If I were writing for audio theater, I'd want to be sure I included spokes for socioeconomic class, geographic location and era, as these can really inform the way a character speaks. I went ahead and included those pieces on my wheel anyway, just to generate as much discovery as possible.

It's a terrific brainstorming tool and can sometimes lead you right into your story. As you go along, conflicts begin to emerge, personality takes shape, storylines evolve. You catch yourself making discoveries about other characters, branching off from the wheel. I actually used a 14" x 17" sketch pad for my wheel because I wanted lots of visual space. The wheel shape helps me kick out of my linear, editor brain and into the artistic brainstorming creative side. It also gives me a sense of what may be missing from my vision of a character. I look at which spokes seem sparse or blank, and why.

My wheel took a few days because I would detour periodically to do a little research, work on and tweak my plot outline, make some extra notes about other key characters. I had originally thought to do a character wheel on each of the main characters, but I don't want to get overwhelmed. I finally decided to let my exploration of the other key characters happen in a more linear fashion, thus keeping the visual of a wheel that revolves around my central protagonist. I imagine if I were writing a piece that would have multiple viewpoint characters, I'd want to do a full wheel for each of them. but I'm sticking with a pretty traditional Point of View and plot structure on this.

How much do you find you need to know about your main character or characters before you dive in and start your draft? Does it vary depending on genre? What decisions, if any, do you make before you get to know your characters? Are there any graphic organizers or other visuals you've found useful in building a vision of your characters?


  1. Sarina2:44 PM

    Dear Cynthia - I am 17 and an aspiring writer in my last year in high school hoping to go to uni in 2013 and the course requires to have a mentor but I must tell you that I really need a writing friend. I enjoyed this page and the character wheel exercise. I hadn't been shown this way of building up a character. Also you like realism and so do I and I want to work in that way. Is it possible for me to send you some of my short works to look at. Thanks so much Sarina

    1. I'd be happy to look at your work, Sarina. You can reach me by email at cjmcgean@aol.com.


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