Character Situation Exercise

Character Situation Exercise

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Author’s note: Following the Neil Gaiman Master Class series, he offers the following exercise: Using the questions below, create a character. This person can be based on people you know or have completely invented. Write a sentence or two describing what the character wants.

  • What is their name? Age? Gender?
  • What do they look like?
  • What’s in their purse or pockets?
  • What’s their favourite thing to do?
  • What do they hate?
  • What matters to them more than anything in the world?

The Questions

What is the character’s name? Age? Gender?

Pippa, ??, Female

What does the character look like?

Brunette (possibly), but she’s dyed her hair so many colours she doesn’t remember the original anymore, tattoos adorn her entire body, but despite a lithe and attractive compact form she normally wears relaxed clothes, jeans, and loose t-shirts to hide it.

Her face is habitually fixed in a wide grin, eyes somewhere between hazel and amber, always twinkling with a mischievous light. Some light make-up on her eyes, maybe lipstick if she’s dressing up or trying to impress.

Both her ears have at least two piercings while her tongue has a single metal bar in through it.

What’s in the character’s purse or pockets?

Probably her wallet, keys, and phone at a minimum. Also, a pen or 3, a notepad, a lighter, coins distributed through pockets, and at least 1 condom.

What’s the character’s favorite thing to do?

Chilling with friends, making people laugh, and being around other like-minded people (sometimes all at the same moment).

What does the character hate?

Liars, bigots, and hypocrites. Also being ignored or shunned.

What matters to the character more than anything in the world?

Her friends and the people she loves. She would do anything for them and wants them to know that they can rely on her to be there for them.


Writing Task

Using the character you created above, write a conversation or a situation where this person cannot get what they want. You may find other characters emerge from this—let it happen. Try opening the scene at the main point of tension—for instance, in the middle of a fight— and fill in the necessary details as the scene plays out.

A Beginning

Pippa practically bounced through the opening, feeling her heart skip a beat as the heavy pub door thumped shut behind her. The packed bar assailed all her senses, the frigid air outside replaced by the blast of voices, loud music, heat, stale smell of sweat, and smoke. Pausing on the threshold, her breath caught in her throat as a room of eyes turned to stare, judge, and undress her.

Pushing up on her tiptoes, she tried to survey the room. Not an easy task, despite wearing her boots, she was still a full head shorter than most of the crowd. Cigarette smoke hung like a mist around the tables, causing her eyes to prickle. Still, she felt a fractional easing in her shoulders when she saw the room was full of familiar faces. This was her bar, and these were her people.

The table across from the entrance caught her eye, and hands, beers, and bottles were raised in greeting. “Pippa!” came a chorus of voices, and numerous hands beckoned her over. She raised her own in an overly dramatic wave, a goofy grin on her face. Her inner monologue rolled its eyes at her. “You look like an idiot.” She instantly regretted the action. But everyone seemed to grin and laugh in appreciation.
“They’re laughing at you.”
“Shut up,” she retorted internally, “not tonight.”

Blinking away the tears from the smoke and swallowing down the tingling nerves, she forced herself to walk. Three steps in, and she froze, through the haze, one face, in particular, snapped into focus, and she locked up entirely.

He was talking excitedly, raising a beer, nodding his head, his free hand moved like a conductor, mapping out whatever he was saying. He, unlike the others, seemed oblivious to everything and everyone around him, his audience Mark and a girl, an attractive one she noted with a pang of jealously, nodding along with him.

He wasn’t always here, and she’d only met him a few times. But she’d known two things immediately, one, she liked him, more than just for the night, he made her laugh, and two, she relaxed around him. Something so rare with a guy she’d sort of forgotten it was possible. She let a practiced grin split her face and aimed to strut with what she hoped looked like a confident, sexy walk up to the table.

Men tried to subtly watch her as she moved by, failing spectacularly. She felt elated, giddy, but every ounce of tension that had faded ratcheted up higher and higher as she approached the table. At the last moment, before reaching the table. She stood over and rested her hand on his upper arm to get his attention. He started and turned in surprise his eyes locking onto her’s, a big smile spreading on his face.

“Hey! Pippa, long time no see”
“Hey,” her shoulders relaxing, “great to see you too…”

A parting

“I’m telling you this complete, fucking bullshit,”
“Look, I’m sorry, I promise you, this is just a temporar..”

He recoiled as if slapped, the anger in her voice tearing through his words and chest like a hammer. He felt himself shrink inside, shoulders bunched and aching from tension, his stomach churned and spat acid as his traitorous mouth dried up in a panic.

His eyes focused and locked onto her forearm tattoo of a cat. Desperate to concentrate on something but also terrified to take on the full heat of her gaze, even then, he could feel her anger radiating off her in waves. Each thundering heartbeat in his ears boomed with guilt and shame.

“You know that I love you,” he started to say, hating the whining quality that had filtered into his voice.

“Do, you?!” he saw her knuckles whiten, “Because you pay more attention to that fucking thing than me!”
Her finger angrily stabbing at his computer screen.

Petulant resentment flared.
“I’m studying to get a better job! it’ll help us both out of this situation!” he tried to meet her eye.
“It’s not going to be forever, then we can move to a nicer place, a better place.”
Pippa snorted, her lip curling up. She stood over him as he sat coiled in the chair, every nerve and muscle simultaneously ice and fire.
“Do you know how long you’ve been saying that?”

“I’m done, James, I’m leaving, I’m going to walk out that door, and if I do, you won’t see me again.” her eyes were fire. “Do. You. Understand?”

The silence lasted a breath, then two. A million responses left unsaid.

Then in an instant that he would replay forever, she was turning and striding away, her back straight, fists clenched at her sides, rage and pain flowed out from her body language like a cloud. The edge of her tattoos seemed to stand out like sharp lines against her pale skin, like even they were taught with anger and disgust at him.

His bedroom door slammed so hard behind her that the frame shuddered. For a moment, his vision blurred, the sound of her heavy boots marching off down the corridor.

He heard a strangled noise leave his throat, even as his body slumped in defeat as he listened to the finality of the front door being slammed shut.

He stared blankly at the door for an unknowable amount of time. Part of him screaming to get up and run after her, part of him saying that this wasn’t his fault. His neck creaked and popped when he finally turned to look at the computer screen, the software problem still waiting for him.

He forced himself to rotate the chair. To focus. He sat at his computer, hunched and alone. Here was something he could resolve. No pain, no sacrifice or compromise, desperately trying to ignore the smiling faces of the couple staring accusingly at him from his desktop background, he started to type.

Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules of Writing”

Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules of Writing”

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The late Elmore Leonard ( October 11, 1925 – August 20, 2013) once wrote a brief article where he laid out the ten commandments on writing, infused with his signature blend of humor, humility, and uncompromising discernment. It’s good, a little heavy in some areas. He hates adverbs with as much passion as Stephen King.

1 Never open a book with weather.

If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2 Avoid prologues.

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

3 Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” …

…he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

5 Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6 Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7 Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants, what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9 Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

Advice from Stephen King

Advice from Stephen King

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Here’s a list of some advice from the master of horror himself Stephen King. He writes like a machine. Definitely, someone to listen to. It all comes down to one thing though, write, write and write some more. Practice makes perfect and I really need to practice harder.

If you don’t succeed, get a bigger nail.

This advice comes from the huge number of rejection letters that Stephen King got, the idea was he had so many pinned on a nail in his wall that eventually it fell loose. So he got a bigger nail and kept going. 

Write 6 pages a day.

In his autobiography, Stephen King says something similar he also says he will “permit” a starting writer to start with a mere 1000 words a day. I think this is worth trying but man I bet George R. R. Martin would have apoplexy if he got told this. 

Go where the story takes you. 

As a self-proclaimed pantser this is very Stephen King. He doesn’t believe in plotting everything. There’s no way to be sure which I should do, but I have found planning very hard. Perhaps I should just write.  

The good ideas will stick with you.

Seems like good advice. If you write 6 pages of content every day, there are sure to be good ideas that you can file away for later. 

First, you read and copy other writers, then little by little you develop your style

I’m trying this with good dialogue, literally copying out conversations that I loved. It’s also true that I can hear when the language becomes too much. Writing dialogue is really hard. 

Writing is self-hypnosis, you need to have a routine. 

Christ, I need a routine in everything. My life is a mess. I have no good sleep or waking pattern. I need a new flat, with at least doors. I need a space where I can write and be on my own occasionally. 

Start with short stories and let them develop into novels or screenplays.

Okay, good news. This I can do. Hell, this I want to do, I am more interested in finding out that there are no large websites for short story collaboration, etc. There is but it has more broken links and doesn’t seem to work

Learn to write for different mediums. 

I think I’ll start by getting good at just writing in the first place. 

Look for ideas that you would really enjoy writing for longer periods. 

This all comes back to me needing to write more and more and find what I enjoy. I wrote a lot of stuff that never gets put out there. 

Get immersed in your writing process until the outside world is gone. 

Easy to say, hard to do in a single room flat where I work, sleep, eat and cook.

Force Multipliers – Studying things that make a difference

Force Multipliers – Studying things that make a difference

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Right now, I’m busy studying to find out what to do with my life since losing my business. It’s been a tough year with losses in my family and a radical shift from the future I expected. Force multipliers are something I have been reading a lot about, and it’s interesting to read up on how focusing on key points has a dramatic effect on over just wide and shallow studying.

For example, reading every AWS digital course as I am right now has given me a wide shallow view of what AWS has to offer for customers, developers, and businesses in the cloud; that’s not a bad thing, mind you. It’s a good idea to have a high altitude view of the area before focusing on anything in particular. If you have no idea what’s available, how can you find what’s important?

So what force multipliers exist or are suggested, well there are a few I’m come across that make some sense to me and I’ll share them below.

Touch Typing

I’m pretty sure this is a universally useful skill for any person living in the western world today. The ability to type fast and smoothly on a computer is a ubiquitous force multiplier for any professional in the 21st century. As a programmer and someone who grew up with a keyboard, it shocks me how many people don’t practice this. I have recently started retraining my skills using the website:

I was shocked at how slow I had become (40 wpm) and the number of mistakes I made while typing, so I started almost from scratch. The ability to type fast and accurately will help me with; creative writing, programming, writing emails, writing documentation, etc. The list is nearly endless. While speeding up your writing speed by just a few words per second seems on the surface trivial, we can multiply it by the number of seconds, minutes, and hours we save every week from that minor increase.

If I double my typing speed and have a 95% or more accuracy, I would be, theoretically, able to do double the writing, double the coding, or double the draft rewrites than before. This is what it means to be a force multiplier, a skill that impacts multiple fields and skills in your life in a single blow.

Grammar, punctuation, and tenses

Okay, so as an English teacher for 10 years you might assume that this is a given. I should have mastered every tense, comma and semi-colon while teaching. This is partially accurate. I have improved my tenses and writing skills no doubt. But there’s a big difference between teaching English to foreigners and using it well for native readers. The best way to construct a paragraph and how to express myself whether in technical writing or in creative writing, avoiding the passive voice or using the oxford comma are less important for somebody trying to decide between “I have saw” and “I have seen”.

Again, the ability to write clearly punctuated, well-formed sentences and paragraphs on the first try will help anyone reduce the time they spend on any work they do. Also, beyond the tenses and grammar, there is knowing what is appropriate for the audience and material at hand. The use of the passive voice in creative writing or one’s C.V. is a terrible idea. When writing a technical how-to document, it can be perfectly acceptable.

writer working on typewriter in office

“The use of the passive voice in creative writing or one’s C.V. is a terrible idea. When writing a technical how-to document, it can be perfectly acceptable.”

Mathematics and programming

As force multipliers and studying go, nothing is probably more powerful than Maths. This is painful because Mathematics and I would not be considered friends. But there is simply no doubt that having a good grounding in maths will help you in way too many domains to be ignored. To this end, much like with touch-typing, I am working on this using online resources mainly the incredible

Not much to explain here, it’s just something that I need to find a better approach to and master. Whatever field of programming or software I want to dive into Mathematics will be a force multiplier in that, my finances, my loans, everything.

Maths confused

Cross the X and Y carry the Z and add 人 now?!

Programming is something I have studied a lot but not in the depth and breadth I could have. I need to go back to fundamentals like maths and work my way back to a better level. I have time; I have the capacity I need to study the fundamentals again. Learning AWS, cloud services, SaaS, PaaS, IoT, and other projects will definitely put me back on track. Still, I think revisiting computer science theory such as OOP, and other skills is necessary.

Talking of science…

Once I’ve cleared the maths cobwebs from my brains, science is another keystone and force multiplier in all its glory, physics, chemistry, and biology. It depends on what I want to do with my life as to how much and what to study. I find space endlessly fascinating and space exploration, so Physics and Chemistry seem a no-brainer. One step at a time, I’m practicing writing 500 words a day and touch typing; I’ll start to do Mathematics once or twice a week and programming every day. I’ll need to get some clear goals in mind. I don’t need to master these things; just raising my awareness to pick a path to focus on.

The other big one of course is exercise and health, I’ll speak about that in another post. But being healthy, fit and being in a good condition is just as important.

A teenage girl climbing a rock cliff with a man below her

A teenage girl climbing a rock cliff with a man below her

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Author’s note: Following the Neil Gaiman Master Class series, he offers the following exercise. Take one of the simple settings below and write a page about it, trying to undermine the reader’s expectations. For example, you’re writing about a man at a party who is talking to a beautiful woman. What he wants is probably obvious. Try to lead the reader in a different direction by not revealing his desire up front, or by revealing a surprising motivation.

  1. A man lying on a hill looking through a rifle scope
  2. A couple in wedding outfits riding in a car
  3. A child raking a sandbox next to his nanny
  4. Two old women sitting on a bench with knitting needles and yarn
  5. A teenage girl climbing a rock cliff with a man below her
cliff with basalt rock formation in sea
Photo by Nick Bondarev on

The rock shifted under her fingers and the scream that nearly came from her mouth conflicted with her choked intake of breath as a kind of squeaked whimper. The piece of cliff face peeled away from the sheer surface like tree bark and tumbled away past her right ear bouncing down the 10 meters of incline until smashing to pieces with a dull thump on the unforgiving rocks below.

Sweat burned rivulets down her face and stung her eyes. Her whole upper body was trembling from the effort of climbing. She was panting hard as she blinked desperately to clear her sight.

“This was a mistake Claire.” she thought, “a very big, very high mistake.”

She scanned the surface around her through blurring vision until noting the lengthwise fissure, for a moment she hesitated not knowing what may have made its home in there before thrusting her hand as deep as she could manage, then formed a fist, grating knuckles against stone, definitely tearing up her skin. She hissed between teeth as she used the ‘grip’ to lift her body and right leg enough to find a toe hold. Then she lunged up, her body clear of the cliff aside from her fist grip. Heart in mouth she exalted as her left arm slammed triumphantly onto the small ledge she’d seen.

Small, barely 30cm deep, more of a shelf than a ledge, but enough to sit on, enough to rest. Get her body back under some kind of control. She let out a ragged yell of effort as she heaved herself up and onto the outcrop, scraping her chest painfully through her t-shirt and then carefully shuffling her body around with secure handgrips before swinging her feet out to dangle from her impromptu seat.

She nearly fell from what she saw had arrived below, flinching back so hard from the figure that she nearly shifted her buttocks off the ledge, she braced on a knife’s edge for a moment before finding her balance and shrinking as far back against the rock face as possible.

The figure watched impassively, honestly, she admitted to herself, it didn’t have much of a choice in the matter, it looked like it was carved from basalt, featureless and grey, the surface looking marked my a million tiny chips and scratches, merely the suggestion of a face and the tilt of its head letting her know that it was focused on her. Head cocked to one side like a person might when considering something but the blank smooth “face” gave no indication of what that might be.

The only thing Claire knew for sure is the thing terrified her, even here 10 meters up she felt her skin crawl at the sight of it. It hadn’t said anything, perhaps it couldn’t but it’s hulking mass although shaped like a human, was lumpy and disfigured, while she thought it might be around 2 meters tall it didn’t make a sound when it moved. No grinding crunching earthy sounds. Silence. Not even when it stepped down on gravel like below. The impassive watcher made her stress levels spike again.

So she forcibly turned her head to look away from the thing below, steeling herself to look up, to her escape, or fall. First, she estimated just two body lengths until the rim of the cliff and then she released a sigh of pent up tension, a million healthy-looking hand and footholds were visible. The small fissure she’d used below blossomed into a massive open gash in the cliff that offered her a million ways to finish the climb.

Grinning triumphantly she looked back down at the figure below. It stood unmoving head cocked on the opposite side now. The face impression still angled directly at her. Her smile curled a little at the sight and she found her mouth was suddenly very dry. Swallowing a few times she turned and moved to finish the cliff. Her body ached and her hands bled freely. But she brushed away the discomfort and focused. She took a moment to rub rock dust on her fingers, palms, face and forehead to soak up the sweat before lunging for her chosen route.

Within moments she triumphantly cleared the edge. Right arm grabbing roots and branches of a thick bush to help her pull her body up and then flop onto her back the grassy term fresh and cool on her arms and neck. She lay there taking deep lungfuls of air. A great tension releasing from her body, to be replaced by instant fatigue. She cautiously peeked over the edge of the cliff back to the base. The figure remained there but was in motion again. It’s formally fixated gaze seemed to be moving back and forth. It brought to mind a person trying to find the source of a sound. Was it ‘looking’ for her? She snapped her head back and slowly moved backwards away from the cliff edge.

Whatever was happening, now was time to run and run some more. She could figure out what to think about all this later. She turned intent on doing just that and froze, no more than 20 meters away stood another figure. But this one was massive, maybe 3 or 4 meters high. Its body resembling a human in only the vaguest of ways, two elongated arms, two squat legs, a wedged boulder for a head all in a dusty white stone resembling rough marble. The wedge at the top swivelled smoothly as she watched in growing horror a vein of quartz demarking its attention which had fixed upon her. She remained locked in place, like the rabbit caught in the oncoming headlights, “I need to move, I need to move” her mind bleated.

It surged forward, tearing a scream of pure horror from her throat as it loped and stumbled toward her on its deformed arms like some sort of lopsided gorilla, one arm raised high and she saw at that moment the promise of a violent and crushing death. Her legs remained rooted in place, her body rebelling against her. She closed her eyes and with a mental sob, waited for the inevitable.

She felt more than heard the impact, the grinding crunch of stone on stone and felt her face and upper body peppered with what felt like needles. It was followed immediately by what sounded like the crack of a lightning bolt, a noise so hard and shocking that it reverberated through the ground, up to her teeth, through every bone in her body, but she wasn’t dead, she was sure of that. She opened a single eye, terrified and curious of what was there. A dark grey basalt wall was an arms reach before her. The figure from before now stood before so close she could see every scratch and battle scar adorning its form.

Her stunned mind refused to take it all in, it must have jumped the cliff she realised numbly, A 20-meter vertical jump so well done that it landed just before her in time… In time too. The marble figure regarded the smaller one, who held it’s the great fist in both of its own. Then, for the first time, Claire heard the basalt figure make a sound, a deep rumbling growl, the sound of avalanches, the sound of earthquakes and storms. Elemental. Then the battle exploded before her.