Writing Exercise – Characters

by | March 6, 2012 | Writing Exercise | 6 comments

by Ashley Lister More often than not, enjoyable fiction is all about characters. Many readers approach fiction for the excitement of meeting new and interesting characters – the characters that you, the writer, have created. Characters often remain the most vivid and memorable parts of any fiction. This is particularly true in erotica with a heritage that has given us such literary stalwarts as John Cleland’s Fanny Hill (Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure), Pauline Reage’s O (The Story of O), and Justine from de Sade’s Justine ou Les Malheurs de la Virtu. But creating convincing and credible characters can be one of the trickiest aspects of the craft. The following exercise might be helpful for those writers who want to create a distinctive character that readers will remember long after they’ve finished the final page. 1) Think of an easily identifiable activity or occupation such as cop, soldier, cowboy or office worker. Ideally, pick an occupation with which you are already familiar, or with which you’d like to be familiar. (It’s worth noting that in the list of occupations above, each of these job titles has been the subject of themed anthologies focusing solely on characters connected to that particular occupation). 2) Once you’ve picked an occupation for your character, write down all the stereotypical things you’d expect that character to do, both positive and negative. Using one of the examples from above, you’d expect a cop to eat donuts, or blurt out the name of the culprit when watching a whodunit film, or have a set of handcuffs dangling from his or her hip. You’d expect a cop to have a natural air of confidence and a commanding air of authority. But the chances are you’ve picked a different occupation other than cop. Write a full list of traits that you’d usually associate with a character in the occupation you’ve chosen for this exercise. Include the good traits and the bad traits. 3) Now start to think of things your fictional character could do to become an individual – things that break the stereotypical mould. As an example, the cop I mentioned before might collect fine glassware. This interest in the aesthetic breaks the mould of the stereotype because few people consider police officers to have an appreciation for art or craftsmanship. This is not to say that police officers don’t have refined taste. But there are a lot of readers out there who see police officers solely as the face of authority with little interest in art. Could this unexpected aspect of my police officer’s character be considered erotic? Well, if he has an appreciation for fine glassware, then there’s a chance that his strong and powerful hands could be taking masterful yet sensitive control of a piece of fragile and delicate Lalique. His fingers could smooth against its detailed curves. His broad palms could cup the swell of a rounded base. He could caress a smooth and swollen surface. He could trace his fingernails against unyielding ridges. And this is before the situation has even moved toward being erotic. Compile a list of traits that would go against the stereotype of the occupation you’ve chosen – make this a list of things that no one would expect your character to do. These facets will make your character stand out as memorable. 4) Write a short scene showing your character going against the conventional norms of their occupation. Write a short scene that shows your character as a unique individual. Take time with this exercise. It’s not easy but the rewards can be plentiful – for yourself and for your readers. The chances are, after trying this a couple of times, you will have created an intriguing character who demands a place in your next fiction. The characters we create in our stories are going to live on the page and exist in the minds of our readers. Making these characters as vivid and memorable as possible is a sure way of making our work stay with the reader. More importantly, they give the reader a valid excuse to return to our writing again and again in the future. Ashley Lister

Ashley Lister

Ashley Lister is a UK author responsible for more than two-dozen erotic novels written under a variety of pseudonyms. His most recent work, a non-fiction book recounting the exploits of UK swingers, is his second title published under his own name: Swingers: Female Confidential by Ashley Lister (Virgin Books; ISBN: 0753513439) Ashley’s non-fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines, including Forum, Chapter & Verse and The International Journal of Erotica. Nexus, Chimera and Silver Moon have published his full-length fiction, with shorter stories appearing in anthologies edited by Maxim Jakubowski, Rachel Kramer Bussel and Mitzi Szereto. He is very proud to be a regular contributor to ERWA.


  1. Donna

    What a great exercise! I could also see it working beautifully if you're stuck with a story and need to give your characters some more conflict and depth. We certainly do remember people who surprise us and subvert our expectations more than those who simply fulfill them.

  2. Ashley R Lister

    Hi Donna,

    I'm currently reading a science book that would be very dry and factual if not for the author's interest in the characters he's discussing and the impact that these large scientific discoveries make on everyday life.

    Characters rock 🙂


  3. Lisabet Sarai

    Hi, Ashley,

    This sounds like a fabulous exercise. If I can use a character that already exists – Stella Xanathakeos from my novel EXPOSURE…

    Stella is a stripper. So she might be expected to have the following characteristics:

    – Focused on money – possibly financially desperate
    – Poorly educated
    – Not very intelligent
    – Trashy taste in clothing
    – Emotionally tough, hard to get close to
    – Unselective when it comes to sexual partners

    Here are some facts about Stella:

    – She strips "for the fun of it". She loves her job. She could make more money doing something else, but she wouldn't have the same freedom
    – She wrote poetry for her high school newspaper
    – She wears top-quality, chic suits and knows how to look extremely classy. She spends a good deal of her income on dry cleaning
    – She's articulate enough to serve as the campaign manager for a city mayoral campaign
    – She's very particular about who she has sex with (although I'll admit she has several partners in the book)
    – She's smart enough to figure out the who's responsible for a murder

    I had great fun with Stella, breaking the stereotypes. And I agree this is an excellent nuts-and-bolts way to develop a character.

    AND I want to meet your glass-expert cop with the big, sensitive hands…

  4. Remittance Girl

    What a WONDERFUL exercise, Ashley. I'm going to use it for my class! Well, sans the sex parts. heheh

  5. Ashley R Lister


    I remember reading Stella in Exposure! She was a wonderfully rounded character and one of those that seemed to live beyond the page.

    Definitely not a stereotype.

    I think I might take a shot at developing that cop. It seems like ages since I've worked with a strong male character.


  6. Ashley R Lister


    Let me know how the class works out. I've found this exercise works well – but I've been very lucky with some of the classes I've had.

    I used Donna's monoawase exercise for a class last week and it went down an absolute storm.


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