I’ve been teaching in the low-residency MFA program at Miami University here in Ohio the past few days, and one day I led a writing activity for people in our prose workshop. Both fiction and nonfiction writers went through the following steps to great success. They found genuine, strong voices while also developing a deeper understanding of character. I hope this exercise will have similar effects for you and your work.
Recall a moment from your past that caused you great emotional discomfort. Dramatize that moment on the page, using action, dialogue, setting, detail, etc. Make it something that the readers participate in rather than merely eavesdrop on. You could also do this for fictional characters, creating moments of discomfort for them.
Write a letter to a person who caused you this emotional pain or to your younger self. Feel free to choose from the following prompts: “I wish you’d known. . . .” “If only I’d known you (or your). . . .” “I wanted (or want) to tell you. . . .” You can also do this for fictional characters by getting into their consciousnesses and letting them think about what they wish they’d known about themselves or someone else, or what they wish they’d said or done.
The objective of this exercise is to go deeper into character relationships by practicing the art of empathy. It may require you to put yourself into another person’s shoes—yours, perhaps, or those of the person who harmed you, or one of your fictional characters who must deal with whatever pain they’re carrying because of someone else. Empathy, when combined with vulnerability, often leads to a richer and more complicated treatment of human relationships.