People are complex. So are believable characters. Much of what comprises our characters stems from the writer’s knowledge of the universe and writing’s miraculous universality. Think of Don Quixote de la Mancha, Jane Eyre, and Oscar de León—or your own favorite characters. What about these notable literary figures gives them life and humanity? Write a paragraph that defines the complexities of each character you are developing. Tack these paragraphs to the wall beside your desk, and use them as guidelines for your characters whenever their voices are muted by the harsh winds of creativity.
The Time Is Now
The Time Is Now offers a weekly writing prompt (we’ll post a poetry prompt on Tuesdays, a fiction prompt on Wednesdays, and a creative nonfiction prompt on Thursdays) to help you stay committed to your writing practice throughout the year. We also offer a selection of books on writing—both the newly published and the classics—that we recommend you check out for inspiration, plus advice and insight on the writing process from the authors profiled in Poets & Writers Magazine. And don’t miss Writers Recommend, which includes books, art, music, writing prompts, films—anything and everything—that has inspired other authors in their writing.
People come in and out of our lives like passengers on a train. Some stay for much of our journey. Others get on and off, quickly disappearing into their own travels. Write a poem about someone who became part of your life, but left the train. Who were they? Why do you miss them? What happened? Focus on tone, voice, and imagery.
In many ways you are everyone who came before you. Your uniqueness is your own spin on the DNA of your ancestors. Spend several minutes sitting quietly in front of a mirror. Reflect. Other than you, whom else do you see? Write 500 words about how you feel toward these people you’ve never met but who are part of you. Their story is yours, too.
Dialogue is about economy of words. Less means more. Dialogue should reveal characters through tension. Write a scene in which your protagonist must convince a stranger to divulge his or her social security number. The context is irrelevant. Use the conversation to show readers who, exactly, this protagonist is. At the end of the scene, have the stranger whisper the number into the protagonist’s ear.
Writing poetry can be a lonely endeavor. Reading poetry, however, can introduce us to people and worlds we’ve never experienced. Use the power of poetry to help someone who is lonely. The woman resting her head on the steering wheel at a long red light. The old man with a soggy coaster at the end of the bar. The adolescent kid hiding in the school bathroom. Write a poem for them, from you.
Social media has changed human interaction. Twitter, Facebook, and other digital platforms force us to create versions of ourselves that often misrepresent our true feelings and situations. This disconnect can interfere with our relationships and even distort our own identities. Write about a time when social media added turmoil to your life. Explore the difference between who you are online, and who you are at the dinner table.
Resist the temptation to build characters according to stereotypes. Character development must reflect the complexities of real people. Even Pure Evil buys his favorite niece a pony for her birthday. Learn to love your villains as people, and they will reward you as characters. Write a scene where the most despicable character in your fiction does something deeply touching and loving. Then send them on their evil way.
The end of summer means the beginning of autumn. This is a time of change. Write a poem about the changes occurring in your life. Choose powerful verbs. Focus on the feelings of expectation, fear, and relief that come with change. Use vivid imagery. It is during change that we are often the most alive.
Creative nonfiction isn’t only about the past. History is always happening. Right now, at this very instant, your life is passing. What is happening in your life? What are your worries? Your problems? Your fears and loves? Imagine yourself eleven years from now, and imagine what your perspective might be on your current situation. Write about your life from the year 2024. Time may heal all wounds, but now is the best time to document your bleeding.
“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” This writing axiom extolled by Kurt Vonnegut underscores the importance of human desire. However, desire often stems from human frailty: the need to fill or compensate for something we lack—a mothers’ love, approval from society, the ability to forgive ourselves. Write about what your protagonist's desires; this is where the story begins.
The center of our families, our homes, and our most treasured conversations occur at the kitchen table. We discuss the vibrant color of sautéed asparagus, the deep laugh of a deceased grandfather, or sit quietly, alone, worrying about our children at 3am. Write a poem about your kitchen table, and the food, voices, and thoughts it has experienced over the years.
A threadbare T-shirt. A stained cookbook. A folded 1989 Yankees ticket. We all refuse to part with items that hold sentimental value. Write about something you own that would be trash to another person. Delve beyond mere memories and explore what—the time, the people, the circumstances—that item represents. Write five hundred words.
Human beings are unpredictable. We can snap, betraying decades of impeccable behavior and moral living. A devoted wife cheats with her son’s tennis coach. A respected policeman steals M&Ms from a convenience store. A shy boy kicks a cup from the hands of a homeless woman. Human frailty is an important part of humanity, and our characters. Our attempts to hide indiscretions often lead to unfathomable tragedy. Write a scene where your protagonist snaps. Show, don’t tell.
Windows, like frames for photos and paintings, provide a context to the vast world around us. Sit by your favorite window and write a poem about life beyond the glass: diaphanous oak leaves spangled in sunlight, fatigued men hanging from a garbage truck, chirping songbirds flitting through summer rain, a hunched elderly woman who feels forgotten. Remember: This is your window as defined by your life. Give yourself thirty minutes.
“There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor.” This observation by Oscar Wilde reminds us that no one is unaffected by money. Money heats our stoves, stitches our wounds, and clothes our children. Yet, people can perceive money—like art and religion—very differently. Think of a moment in your family history when money created tension. Focus on how individuals spoke, listened, and acted. Write objectively.
Juxtaposition creates tension, contrast, and intrigue. Think of two objects that don’t belong together next to each other: a cat skeleton and a shrimp cocktail, an antique coffee grinder and a wet scuba mask, a spare car tire on a floating iceberg. Once you choose your items, write the story that brought them together.
Think of your favorite meal. Write a poem about the recipe, describing how each ingredient and every action contributes to the final whole. Evoke the five senses—from the sound of a whisk to the smell of paprika. Explore what this meal means to you and why. Write vibrantly, unless gruel is your thing.
Mankind has often wrestled with the relationship between fate and self-determination. Write about a time in your life when your inner strength and perseverance changed the outcome. Next write about a time in your life when you believe fate played a role. Then write an essay about how this complex dynamic is manifested in your characters and creative nonfiction.
Sometimes we are emotionally imprisoned by the ones we love. Overbearing parents, paranoid spouses, and needy children can make us—and our characters—feel trapped in an intolerable life. Write a scene where an antagonist in your writing leaves a loved one behind and begins life anew. Use details to express relief, guilt, and anger.
Writing poetry is an act of empowerment. Sit quietly at your desk. Think about what you’re most insecure about in life: being a good parent, making enough money, not being able to love fully. Write a poem about how you plan to overcome that insecurity.
Sit quietly at your writing desk and look at an old photograph of a relative who has passed on. Examine the person's face. Study the person's expression. Analyze the person's posture. What about this person still lives on through your family? What about this person still lives on through you? Write without editing your thoughts.
People change in life, so must your characters. Write a paragraph about your protagonist at age eight discovering a wounded sparrow on the sidewalk. Next write a paragraph about the same protagonist at age forty-two encountering the same sparrow. How are the reactions different? Write a third paragraph about why your character changed. That is the story of your protagonist.
Time is what we call the brutal miracle that makes us grow old. Certain months of time remind us of falling in love, burying a loved one, or moving into a new house. This week, as we say goodbye to July, reflect on what August has meant to your life. Begin your poem with your childhood. Then describe how August has changed you and your perception of the world.
The wind can toss a greasy napkin down a city street, stir dead leaves in the corner of an abandoned tool shed, or propel an ancient sailboat across an ocean. Every wind has unique and varied sounds, smells, and textures. Think of a moment in your life when the wind was particularly prevalent. Describe the wind as if it were a character with a distinct personality—strengths, weaknesses, and quirks. How did that wind influence your thoughts and feelings, and why was it so memorable? Write 500 words.
The ping of a spatula. The rattle of dirty plates. A dropped spoon. Place the main character of your story or novel in a diner. Write a paragraph detailing the many sounds this character hears. Then have this same character receive devastating news via an anonymous letter delivered by the waitress. Write another paragraph about the sounds the character now hears. The two paragraphs should be very different. Tragedy changes us instantly in so many ways.