Persona Workshop

Here's a creative party game, designed for groups. I've done this as a workshop, both within a particular genre (science fiction) and with writers in general. (See my "Persona Workshop" listings under Performances, Workshops, Panels.) Writing is not a prerequisite for this game, however; it's open to everyone. When I taught science fiction writing in adult education (see Writing/Editing/Publishing under my résumé), I used this workshop for the first class meeting.

What you'll need:

1. Either a blackboard or presentation board, or a large blank wall.

2. (If you're using a blank wall) at least 11 large sheets of paper (16 by 20 inches is a good size). The 11 sheets are for your major categories, but extra sheets come in handy if you're really on a creative roll.

3. Magic markers (make sure they won't bleed through the paper onto the wall, especially if you're using newsprint).


4. A crowd that likes to talk!

This creative group play starts by building a protagonist from the ground up, and then begins to build (and often finishes building) a plot structure.

Write, in large letters, the following titles on your sheets (one per sheet):

1. Dreams and Desires
2. Major Characteristics
3. Strengths/Weaknesses
4. History
5. Hobbies and Interests
6. Appearance
7. Environment
8. Goals
9. Antagonist(s)
10. Other Characters
11. Relationships

You'll need a facilitator to write on the sheets (or board) and to pose questions. Here we go:

1. Dreams and Desires

The audience calls out anything in this category. In my workshops this ranges from "tall," "popular," and "confident" to (in the science fiction crowd) "immortal," "omnipotent," and "telepathic." Anything goes here. Write your list on the sheet or board.

2. Major Characteristics

Once you have all your Dreams and Desires listed, you can use either all of them or a subset. Sometimes they fall together into either obvious or unusual subsets. Decide what looks manageable as a set of qualities that can fit into one character, and list them here.

3. Strengths/Weaknesses

Now you're going to analyze those qualities, because while they may look positive at first glance (note that some might start off as negative, too), there are two sides to everything. Is your character immortal? Immortal characters get to see their friends and loved ones die before them. Is your character confident? What if that confidence is misplaced? Strengths will help your character reach his/her/its goal(s). Weaknesses will become obstacles for that character to overcome. In a complex character, both those strengths and weaknesses issue from the same source, the same character qualities. Again, list these strengths and weaknesses.

4. History

Been there, done that, but how did you get there? How did that character become popular? Or omniscient? In one of my workshops, the group invented a presidential candidate who started off as a rock star. Another chronicled the beginnings of a god. A character's history has a lot to do with his/her/its motivations. Invent your character's past and see how it affects the present and future.

Note! -- You may start to find, as you go through these steps, that asking continual questions about your character creates yet more characteristics: more strengths and weaknesses, more detail in your character's history. You can go back and change what's on any sheet. You can also jump forward: what if your character's past reveals a best friend, the relationship to a parent, etc.? Go on ahead to the Other Characters, Antagonist(s), and/or Relationships sections and add your findings. You can draw connecting lines and arrows as items on one sheet relate to items on another sheet (or section of the board). Nothing is etched in stone. The more questions you ask, the more layers you'll uncover and create, and the more your character(s) will come alive.

5. Hobbies and Interests

We are all much more than the main "plot lines" in our lives. We have hobbies, interests. They often come into play during what some may see as the more "important" priorities in life. Truth is, our hobbies and interests define, in a major way, just who we are. The same goes for your characters. Do you have an archaeologist who paints? An opera singer who skydives? A deity who spends free time living as a flower or a rock? Hobbies can become an integral part not only of your character but of the story that emerges around that character. (After all, if you're a "good god" who's vacationing as a rock, you might not be aware of what the "bad god" is doing in your absence.)

6. Appearance

Is your character female, male, both, neither? A dead ringer for a famous celebrity? Three inches tall? Does your character have skin, fur, scales? Is your character human, animal, alien, god? Paint a verbal picture (or, if you work in images, draw or paint directly). Are there any identifying marks? Does your character have a birthmark, a nervous tic? Appearance also includes body language. Are some of these qualities part of your character's history (was your character born with a third eye) or were they a recent acquisition ("today I become a redhead!")? Keep in mind that regardless of whether your character was born with a trait or acquires one, that character's past will be an influencing factor in his/her/its development.

7. Environment

This can pertain to present and past environments. Did your character grow up on a farm to end up working on a Peace Corps agricultural project overseas? Or did this person end up working on Wall Street? Is the environment Mount Olympus or Mount St. Helens? Is your character in a penthouse, in a slum, on the banks of a river, on a gas giant planet, in a desert, in a busy office before the advent of computers (or after), in a secret hideaway? Keep in mind that the environment(s) you choose will have some bearing on the people or creatures with whom your character associates. In some cases, the environment itself becomes a character: if you are struggling to get to the top of Mt. Everest, then Everest itself becomes your opponent, your antagonist. If you are climbing for love of the climb and the adventure, then Mt. Everest becomes, in a way, your lover as well. We all have a relationship to and with our environment -- find out how your character relates, too.

8. Goals

What does your character want to do? Your findings here can relate back to the initial "Dreams and Desires" section -- does your character have all these qualities, or are some of them missing? If you had these qualities, how would you want to use them? The goal can be anything: a physical accomplishment (e.g., climbing Mt. Everest), a spiritual attainment (e.g., redemption), or something completely megalomaniacal (e.g., ruling the world). You may already have discovered your character's goals in the process of working with the previous categories. If not, do some collective brainstorming and come up with an objective.

Note! -- Chances are you're going to get redundancies among these sections. You can get a goal that relates directly to your character's history. You can get a strength or weakness that stems in part from your character's environment. It's not only possible to have the same items listed in more than one section; it's often beneficial. You end up seeing the same qualities or characteristics from multiple angles. Character qualities are like colors -- if you view red against a blue background it looks different than if you view it against a yellow background. Translated into character qualities: if your character is a doctor fighting a tuberculosis outbreak in a city slum (Goal related to Environment), that same character might be thinking of the sick kitten that was put to sleep when the character was a young child (History ), or a novel read years earlier in which a medieval village suffered through bubonic plague (Hobbies and interests ).

9. Antagonist(s)

Who gets in your character's way? And why? Is it the scholar your character beat out as valedictorian? Is it the competing presidential candidate? Is it the childhood bully that's still a bully but who is now much more powerful? Is it a warring nation, street gang leader, despot? If your antagonist is as major a force as your main character (protagonist), you may want to go back and work out your antagonist's history, hobbies, appearance, strengths and weaknesses, goals and desires, etc.

10. Other Character(s)

Who keeps company with your character(s)? Who supports them? Who challenges them? Who can be used as foils (e.g., characters who, by their own actions and personalities, further the story line)?

11. Relationships

Does your character have a love interest? A hate interest? A mentor? A protégé? By this time, chances are that you already have a good idea of what the relationships are among your characters -- but if not, now's the time to brainstorm them.

Chances are that you've already got a story line emerging from all these character qualities, particularly once you've begun to deal with the character Goals. Have fun collaborating as a group. Invent alternate story lines, alternate universes -- because you can take the same variables and mix'n'match them in many different ways. Afterwards, you may want to copy down what you've listed and try to fashion your own individual tale from the items that were brainstormed. Alternatively, you can use this group exercise as an individual "idea bank" for your own stories and character development.

This is but one of many ways in which to design characters and stories. This "playshop" focuses first on character development. Other techniques can focus on plot line, or ideas and concepts. I hope that the group play activity above provides a creative avenue that is fun, exciting, and inspiring!

Read a transcript of a workshop session.


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