Weekend Writing Workout – Defining Moments Part II – Character Development

I gave an exercise last weekend called “The 10 Defining Moments of my Life” inspired from a short story by Canadian Author Anne Fleming called “The Defining Moments of my Life.”

It’s a fabulous story first told from the perspective of protagonists’ mother before she is born. What her mother fantasizes her daughter’s perfect life will be like. It is then told again from the protagonists’ perspective. Well, we all know, life is messy and doesn’t happen the way we, or our parents, always fantasize it does.

The story is told in list form, each “defining moment” numbered. As the protagonist’s life journeys on, the numbers get a little wonky. As does her life.

Last week I asked you to do this for yourself, as a personal journey, in prose or poetry form.

Today, I’m recommending you write these moments down for any characters you’d like to develop. These defining moments are backstory:  the joyful moments, the painful moments, the wounds that make the characters who they are in your current story. Many of these things will never be mentioned in your actual story, but keep them in the back of your mind. It will give this person a life before you meet them on the page.

Every person has “wounds” that shaped their life. Creating complex characters means understanding where your own character’s wounds came from. Your characters will be far more believable for doing so and their actions more consistent.


1) Make a list of the 10 Defining Moments of your character’s life.

2) From each moment, write at least 3 IMAGES that go with that moment. I want you to SEE it happening, as if on a movie screen.


Father’s suicide: briefcase, crystal bird, open door to balcony
Ran away from home: black limousine, red “otel” sign, stained carpet
Met Gary on-line: library, broken blue umbrella, wet streets

3) Now, for each defining moment, show us what happened. Write a paragraph or two. Make sure to SHOW the story, don’t explain what happened. Do it in visuals. I try to get my students to think this way, in images, as much as possible. It will make it more “real” in your mind if you can see it. And showing in your writing is always good practice.

You can tell it in 3rd person OR 1st person as the character.

Casey opened her eyes. She was lying on the couch. Her father’s black leather briefcase, the one he had taken on his business trip, sat two feet from her face next to the coffee table. The room was cold and quiet. Someone had left the patio door open and the white curtains were blowing in and out like delicate sails. She had goosebumps on her bare arms. She looked down. Her bird, the crystal bird her father had given her, lay broken on the marble floor… (and so on)


  1. Julia Smith
    Aug 23, 2010

    What a great exercise! Is it weird that I now want to drop everything (including my day job, where I’m currently sitting at my desk, on break) to do this for every character I’ve ever written?

    I started an online Weekend Writer’s Retreat in April where I post a new fiction scene every Saturday, and I used backstory so I wouldn’t have to start something from scratch. It has been an amazing and illuminating journey. (I’ve got the story posted at the top of my blog header, under Works in Progress.)

    I now know what tonight’s 3:15 poem will be about…

  2. Doesn’t strike me as weird at all. Sounds like a good use of time!

    I’ll go check out the Writers Retreat.

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