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Character: The Heart of Great Story

Good stories are all about great characters, and great characters take work. Some writers develop characters through discovery/rough drafts while others create character notebooks with detailed charts, photos, interviews, etc.

Regardless of your approach to character development, here’s a fun and simple technique to help you write rich, complex, and compelling characters — Persona Poems. These eight-line poems are biographical in nature and are an excellent way to build and distill character. Persona Poems help you get deep into a character’s head and heart, which will power up your story. Case in point…

In 2008 I received multiple agent offers for my Golden Heart manuscript, THE BROKEN. The agent I eventually signed with thought we had a good chance of going to auction and sent the ms to senior editors at the (then) big six New York publishing houses. Within a week we had…six big NY rejections. I studied the rejections and discovered that five of the six editors had issues connecting with my main character. With the not-so-subtle hint, I spent the next few years studying and working on character. During this time, I discovered the Persona Poem concept from an elementary school teacher.

I eventually went back to THE BROKEN and wrote a Persona Poem for my main character, Kate Johnson. During this exercise, one of the four adjectives I used to describe Kate was “self-loathing.” The more I thought about that descriptor, the more I realized THIS was my problem. Do readers really want to read about a character who loathes herself? Ick! I changed the adjective to “scarred,” which provided me with a more gentle way to address Kate’s brokenness. With this poem on a sticky note attached to my computer, I tweaked Kate’s character, rewriting about ten percent of the manuscript. In 2012, the same agent sent out THE BROKEN to NY, and this time we got that auction.  🙂

Ready to give it a try? Here we go!

Persona Poem Lines

Line 1: first name/nickname of the person
Line 2: 4 adjectives that describe the person
Line 3: X of Y formula, describing an important relationship to the person
Line 4: 3 things s/he loves (think MOTIVATION)
Line 5: 3 things s/he fears (think CONFLICT)
Line 6: 3 things s/he wants (think internal/external GOALS)
Line 7: resident of…+ place/time/concept
Line 8: last name of the person

Persona Poem Example

Kate
Ambitious, fiery, on-the-run, scarred
Target of a serial killer
Loves the dark, motorcycle rides, old movies
Fears public places, mirrors, relationships
Wants to see the serial killer jailed, the road whirring beneath her feet, happily ever after
Resident of Smokey Joe’s spare bedroom
Johnson

Now it’s your turn. Write a poem about one of your characters. What lines were the hardest for you? How do you develop characters? Any character tips or tricks in your writerly toolbox? 

Shelley Coriell is an award-winning author of mysteries, romantic thrillers, and novels for teens. Her debut thriller was named one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of the Year, and her other novels have been nominated for an RT Reviewers’ Choice Award, Best Paperback Original of the Year from the International Thriller Writers, and a Kirkus Recommended Read. A former magazine editor and restaurant reviewer, Shelley lives in Arizona with her family and the world’s neediest rescue weimaraner. You can find her at www.shelleycoriell.com and Twittering @ShelleyCoriell.

23 responses to “Character: The Heart of Great Story”

  1. Addison Fox says:

    Shelley – this is an AWESOME post!!! I love this and I love how clearly the character came together in so few lines!!!!!

    Addison

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  2. jbrayweber says:

    I love this, Shelley! I’d not heard of a persona poem before. What a handy trick! I’ve got to give this a try. Thank you so much for sharing.

    Jenn!

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    • Let us know how the process goes, Jenn. I usually write persona poems for my heroine, hero, villain, and major minor characters…any character that has an internal arc. Good luck and happy poeming!

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  3. WOW! I never heard of this trick. And you got it from an elementary teacher. Kudos to her for teaching this to her students. Our next generations needs to learn the craft of writing and how to express themselves in a positive way. But I regress.

    Great exercise! I quickly gave it a try to get my Mother’s Day brain working and I found things out about my heroine in my next release that I didn’t realize. AWESOME.

    1. Sileen (Honeybee)
    2. Determined, loyal, lonely
    3. Chased by a man with seemingly questionable values.
    4. Loves her town, her home, hanging with her friends, to golf, to dance.
    5. Fears life is passing her by and growing old alone.
    6. Wants to save her family’s business, protect her town, see the world, HEA
    7. Resident of Black Moose, Maple Lane Resort, Cottage #1
    8. Wright

    Thanks for sharing.

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    • Yaaaay! So glad you gave this a shot, Autumn! Sounds like you know Ms. Sileen so very well. One quick question on #5: Can you think of one more fear? Perhaps something less weighty, such as “spiders” or “cherry Jell-O”? The reason I ask is this is a good way to show multiple layers.

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      • Oh easy. She loves to dance by herself not in public. Is that what you meant?

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        • YES! This is an excellent example of showing a different side of Sileen. And this is where the richness lies. You’re easily able to show fears, big and small.

          So when an editor/agent/reader says, “This character feels one dimensional,” a writer can use this exercise to develop texture on multiple levels. Clearly, you have Sileen down. Yessss!

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  4. Tamara Hogan says:

    What an awesome exercise, Shelley! It encapsulates Goal/Motivation/Conflict quite efficiently, doesn’t it?

    off to try…

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    • Good luck, Tamara! I’ll be curious to know how it goes. For the record, line #2, that whole adjective thingy, is BRUTAL for me. But I think it’s one of the most powerful lines. Super tip: put your most powerful adjective last, as that position is most memorable and will stick in your head. Autumn’s poem about Sileen is a great example. Good luck!

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  5. Oh! I seem to remember you came to a NARWA meeting and talked about this poem technique. Thanks for the recap! Definitely going to be using this, especially since I’ve had sick kids at home the past several weeks, and I keep getting drawn out of my stories/writing time. A pithy poem will definitely help me get back into my character’s head quickly and maximize my shortened writing time. 😀

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    • Exactly, Anne Marie. The great thing about this exercise is it distills character so you can get straight into her head/heart and get to the business of putting words on the page. Hugs on the sick kids!

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  6. I love the story of perseverance, Shelley! And that is a fabulous exercise. You have my brain working overtime. I think I’m going to bookmark this one for when I’m ready to start really developing my next hero/heroine. Thank you!!!

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    • Ahhh…the pleasures and pains of perseverance. 🙂 In this biz, talent only gets you so far in the biz. Those who persevere publish. Happy writing, Vivi!

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  7. Elizabeth Langston says:

    I have a heroine that I’m working on right now, and I’ve been having a hard time getting close to her. I’m going to try this for her:

    Raine
    resilient, restless, lonely, affectionate
    granddaughter of an unknowable matriarch
    loves change, research, rom-coms
    fears disappointing her family, alligators, traveling by air
    wants a meaningful job, the truth, being chosen
    resident of trendy rented condo in Raleigh
    Kallis

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    • Lots of great stuff in here, Elizabeth! Fascinating fears and wants. I’m thoroughly intrigued by the phrase “unknowable matriarch”. This sounds like a defining relationship to Raine. I’m curious if “unknowable” means guarded-heart or secretive…

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  8. Wendi Knape says:

    Shelley, what a great exercise!

    I think the most difficult for me to read was line 2 after I created the poem. It seemed so harsh to have such a negative word next to three others that were positive. Creative, driven, loyal, unlovable. Hmm? What does that say about my character? Taken out of the context of the other lines it might not work, but unlovable is one thing that sticks in her head outside of the love given to her by her best friend and her best friend’s family. What do you all think? It’s making my brain hurt.

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    • Wendi Knape says:

      Here’s the poem.
      Sienna
      Creative, driven, loyal, unlovable
      Unsure Saint’s love is real
      Loves jewelry making, friends, and her friend’s family
      Fears rejection, Billy’s tormentor, failure
      Wants to be loved, success, and to see Billy safe
      Owner and jewelry designer of Twisted Metal in Hampshire, MI
      Appleton

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  9. Jamie Michele says:

    This is great! I need to come back to this and try it tomorrow. <3

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  10. Cynthia Huscroft says:

    I’ve Just tried this out & found that it helps to distill a character.

    Persona Poem Lines
    Line 1: JoJo
    Line 2: curious, tenacious, apprehensive, smart
    Line 3: helping a ghost unravel the mystery of his death
    Line 4: reading, gardening, solving a mystery, family
    Line 5: the answer to the mystery, explaining seeing and talking to the ghost to her family and the ghost’s family
    Line 6: to solve the mystery, help the ghost move on, be happy with her new home & school
    Line 7: Eastlake, OH – moved there w/family after grandfather’s death
    Line 8: Dunn

    Thanks, Shelley

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