Put Your Character in a Box

The irony of characters, in my opinion, is that in order to make them real, we have to make them unreal.

What I mean is, no real person can be put in a box and labeled. But to write a character that stands out, we must give that character overarching qualities (labels, even) in order to make that character real and memorable.

When I was in middle school I went on a retreat and we did an intriguing exercise. On the outside of a paper bag we wrote words that described how others thought of us (or how we feel we appear to others). On the inside of the bag we wrote words to describe how we felt on the inside.

I think this is a great exercise to do with our characters. For example, I'm reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo right now. One main character, Blomkvist, doesn't stand out to me at all. He's okay but he doesn't capture my interest. The other character, though, is Lisbeth Sanders. She's intriguing.

This is how I think the author made her intriguing.

On the outside of Lisbeth's box (other characters' perspectives or her outward actions) is written Aloof, Cold, Difficult, Smart.

But on the inside is Tender (evidenced by the scene with her mother), Fragile, and Persistent.

What makes a character intriguing is when the outside words juxtapose with the inside words. When they're opposites or don't seem to match.

Which word is on the outside of your character's box? What is on the inside that surprises the reader? Does this theory fit for your favorite character in a movie or book?


Unknown said…
Mother???? Obviously there's a big difference between the book and the movie.

I love this idea. I'm going to have to try it out. I think I tend to do it without realizing it. At least I do it for some of my characters.
Stina, I haven't seen the movie yet. Interesting the mom isn't in it. You probably DO do this instinctually.
I love this exercise! And your blog looks changed. I like. :)

My character is confident, secure, and successful on the outside. Inside, she's terrified, sees herself as flawed beyond fixing and timid.

I want to read that book, but haven't got around to it yet.
Hey Jessica! No changes on the blog, it's just been a while since I posted. lol It's a good book so far, slow for some in the beginning but I've heard the second half rocks.
Terri Tiffany said…
I think this way at looking at a character will really help me! Thanks!
You're welcome Terri! I know I'm going to try to implement this somehow...lol Try is the key word.
Anonymous said…
I like the paperbag exercise! I'd like to try that with my friends. My character's word would be independant on the outside and un-worthy on the inside.
Jaime Wright said…
Great insights!! Adds perspective to creating that great character that leaps from the page.
Sandra Orchard said…
I love the paper bag visual. I usually try to come up with both my hero and heroine's strengths and their weaknesses from their perspective, the other's perspective, and the perspective of other characters in the book. Then I devise at least three concrete ways to depict the attributes. I love it when the hero or heroine values the qualities others might see as weakness.
Lynn, lol on trying this on your friends!!

Jaime, I think it's worth a try.

Me too, Sandra!! I like when one character thinks she/he has a flaw and another one is like, whoa, I love that about you! lol
Loree Huebner said…
This is an interesting exercise. I'll try it. I think it will be very helpful.
Love this post. I'm all over this stuff w/ my characters. Part of what I love about writing. Must try this.

My hubby & I have been watching the European movies and I do like Lisbeth. I see where you're coming from and couldn't agree more about that juxtaposition.

(I was timid about the books and still am after seeing a few scenes. For some reason what I read really sticks. I guess it sticks even when I watch it, too. Hmmm. Enough thought from me.)

~ Wendy
Stacy Henrie said…
What a fascinating excercise. I want to try that with my next book.
Patti said…
This is a great idea, I'm going to try it today with the book I'm working on.
Lisa Jordan said…
Absolutely love this post, Jessica.

For my current characters, others see her as spunky with gumption, but her word for herself is throwaway.
Thanks Lisa! What a sad way she sees herself. :-( Of course, I'm guessing the hero and God are gonna change her mind. *grin*

Patti, let me know if it works!

Stacy, I haven't tried it yet either (because I just remembered it, lol).
Loree, it seems like it would be right?

Wendy, I haven't gotten to any gory parts...which makes me wonder what's coming? YIKES! I will say that my co-worker read the book because she wanted to see the movie, but now that she finished the book, she refuses to watch the movie. I guess I haven't reached the "bad" parts yet. *shudder*
Brandi Boddie said…
The paper bag image is a unique way of doing character concepts. I'll have to try it out for the characters of my WIP I just started.

My friend recommended the Dragon Tatoo series. I'm hearing more and more about it each day. Are you going to see the movie?
Lindsay Harrel said…
Hi Jessica. I'm new to your site. Love this post. I will have to try it with my characters. I think I do it subconsciously ( my MC is a perfectionist, but the reason is because she feels like a failure), but it would be great to do the exercise.
Unknown said…
What a neat exercise! I think I'll give this a try. Thanks!
Indie Newbie said…
Interesting exercise. On the outside of my heroine I'd say 'ice queen' and on the inside 'heartbroken.'

I heard the movie is a bit tough to take. Let us know if you like the book or the movie better.
Unknown said…
What a great way to look at this!
Elana Johnson said…
Oh, I like this idea. I like it a lot. I'm going to do it for the two MC's in my WIP. Thank you!
Beth K. Vogt said…
Intriguing exercise --for writers to try personally and for writers to try with their characters.
Now to go find a paper bag ...
I like this method!

A character can act/think opposite to their normal leanings when triggered by threatening circumstances. We're not always consistent in real life.
Janet, said…
Good post. you have given us something to think about with our characters.
Sarah Forgrave said…
This is a great post, Jessica! I think we get so focused on avoiding cliches that sometimes we forget there CAN be surface projections in our characters.
Joanne said…
What a great exercise to keep in mind. I think too that sometimes, those inside qualities are a surprise that puts a little different perspective on the outside ones, making us more sympathetic to the character.
WOW! What a great way to put it! I've never thought about it like that, but it's so true. Hmm. I think you need to teach writing classes. Heh.

I'm definitely keeping this in mind with my next WIP. What a wonderful way to write memorable characters. :)
You are so clever. And I LOVE the word juxtapose!

Since I write nf and my characters are mainly me and my family, I'd say people perceive me as compassionate, funny, and wise, but inside I feel impatient, silly, and often confused. Is that too transparent for comfort?

Happy New Year,
This post made me think of Katniss in 'The Hunger Games'. She's a hunter, expert with the box, rule-breaker, defensive and solitary except for one friend and her sister.

INSIDE her box is deep love, loyalty, tenderness. What givs her the illusion of a lethal killing machine is that she promised her little sister to survive. So, as the reader we see how her love launches her into the violence. On the outside, she's scary.

Going to have to check out 'The Girl...' now because yours is the first comment I've read about liking that character!
Anonymous said…
Great exercise! Will do this! I remember doing this exercise when in highschool and I was interviewing to be an exchange student with AFS...
Katie Ganshert said…
This is so true! When the outside opposes the inside. That makes for a VERY intriguing character!

I've never heard it said quite like that before, Jessica.
Nancy said…
This is a great idea. I find when I read novels that often, the inside of the character is revealed to the public and the outside is then seen as just trappings. The character generally grows in the story, so that means that his inside is usually better than his outside. Even when this is reversed and we see weakness come out, we generally love the character and can sympathize.
Donna said…
Oh, I do like this technique. I'm going to have to remember that as I create my next character bible.
Margo Berendsen said…
I've heard this advice before, but when you visualized it as the outside and inside of a bag or box, that just took it a whole new level. So cool !
Neat visual concept! I like it! It's always fascinating to realize that perception and reality seldom match. Very interesting way to go about character development and layering. Characters are kooky and multifaceted and unpredictable, just like people.
Naom Dathan said…
Oh, my gosh, I'm loving that way of conceptualizing the character traits. I'm adding it to my book planner cheat sheet. Thanks!
Hi everyone! Thanks for commenting. Y'all know I didn't come up with the paper bag thing on my own though, right? It was something we did at a retreat. I just remembered it when I was thinking about characters, specifically Lisbeth from Dragon. I'm glad you guys find it helpful though. :-) I know I could do better with my characters.
Virginia...YES!!! You hit the nail on the head with Katniss. I totally agree.
Heather Sunseri said…
I have to confess, I couldn't get through "The Girl with..." I simply didn't fall in love with that book.

Very interesting way of looking at characters. I totally get it with Virginia's example of Katniss. It seems we should be able to do it with all of the big characters we write, huh?
Heather, the first half is very slow, then it picks up. I've heard the second one in the series is excellent.
Anonymous said…
Love this concept and the lavendar look!
Dara said…
Oh this is a wonderful idea! I am going to have to try it with my characters.

Right now, I think my character Asha's outside would say "Defiant" and "Strong" and the inside would say "Hesitant" and "Guarded." I know it seems odd, but my character puts up a good front of defiance and strength but deep down, she's really hesitant and scared in what she's doing (standing up against her tyrannical father and brother). It does change as the book progresses though, so that by the end she truly becomes a strong young woman instead of putting up a front.

Does that make sense? LOL
Beth said…
Amazing exercise. I love this. I'll have to mention it on my blog one of these days but will give you and your middle school retreat full credit!

Haven't read The Girl With... Interesting comments here.
mooderino said…
You make a great point, very interesting post.

Moody Writing
Thanks Kathryn!

Dara, I think it makes perfect sense and it's a good character arc, imo.

Thanks for stopping by, Beth. I'll ck out your post. ;-)

Mood, love the name of your blog. lol

I always learn so much here. Thanks for this post. What a fascinating exercise. I need to try that as I think about my next story.

Happy New Year!
Karen Lange said…
Love this idea! I need to try it! Thanks so much. :)

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