Guest Post, Jen Knox: On Workshops

On Workshops: An Exercise in Character


notebook, laptopThere’s nothing like the first day of class. Coffee, notebooks, and laptops are strewn around the table. The awkwardness of either small talk or silence permeates the room. As the seats fill, the energy is palpable, and the student body seems to carry with it a collective question. What are you about to make us do?

I teach short fiction, often in workshops settings, and though I vary my lesson plans considerably, there is one outline I return to no matter the age or skill level because it is fundamental to fiction writing. This lesson is on characterization, the only lesson I have that is, if not fixed, consistent.

When getting to know a new class, I ask for names, where students are from, how they like to spend free time, their favorite book or movie, and what led them to my class. Sometimes I throw in silly questions, such as how they’d spend a million dollars in three days or who they’d interview first if they had a talk show and could have anyone living or dead on as a guest. In other words, I cover the who, what, when, where, and why to get to know them.

To introduce students to characterization is to introduce them, in part, to all aspects of short-form storytelling. For this reason, I follow introductions by asking my students to answer the first four intro questions for a fictional character as well—preferably a brand-new character. If the more far-reaching question was posed, I ask them to answer that, too.

There is rarely a lot of struggle with this exercise. Characterization is a natural thing. We have so many personal experiences and interactions to draw from that we can often come up with a character by asking ourselves a few simple questions. In fact, if you’re reading this, try it. It’ll only take a few minutes.

  • Name:
  • Place of origin:
  • Favorite past-time:
  • Favorite book or movie:

Think of characterization in a similar manner to how we get to know people. When we first meet a person, we only have appearance to go by, and it’s easy to deduce a thing or two from body language. In conversation, more information is gathered. The more we see a person and interact, the more data we have at hand to create a portrait in our minds.

Examining fabricated characters at this point, after only a few questions, it would seem they are mere acquaintances. We need to know more, so here are a few more questions:

  • What does this character want more than anything?
  • What’s in the way?
  • Greatest fear?
  • Does the character have a favorite color? Favorite food? A quirky habit?

Depending on the length of the workshop, we continue:

  • Would you date your character?
  • Would you be friends?

After adding to our list of questions and answers, a character begins to take shape, and at this early point in the workshop, I tell the class it’s time to share. When we go around the room, the magic begins to take shape. Suddenly, the number of people in the room has doubled. A fresh energy takes over as these quirky new people (usually people) are introduced.

Characters inevitably reflect aspects of either ourselves, people we know, characters from our dreams, and/or fictional characters we’ve been inspired by. We’re processing information day by day, so whether we’re conscious of it or not, all information shapes the way we think and perceive the world as artists. This is never more evident than in spontaneous creative efforts.

Because characters are often a collage of previous interactions, questions about human behavior, dreams, hopes, worries, and joys, they may even lead us to corners of our mind that are strange or uncomfortable. “How did I come up with this disturbing person?” a student might ask. Sometimes a disclaimer will be made: “Just so you know, my writing is not usually so dark.” Or, “I don’t like this person at all. He’s nothing like me.”

Characters, when made up on the spot, are not a reflection of us so much as a reflection of what’s been on our mind, what we know, and what we’d like to know. And in every case, they reflect passions and fears.

That’s not to say that if a student writes a serial killer character, that student is a serial killer. What it does mean is that if we write a serial killer character, that character will likely have some humanizing trait that we share, or reflect a fear we have about the world.


Writing is a way to reframe reality by exploring our emotions through characterization and action, through pure creative output, which, ideally, distills all the information we have and carries with us into potent little worlds that seem both unfamiliar and not.

For the writing-intensive portion of class, I challenge my students to explore their characters by writing a scene in which their protagonists almost get what they so desperately want. This writing assignment is about plot through characterization. It is the heart of the story. It is also important to set a limit on the time they have to write, so I’ll often give them 20 minutes. Knowing a timer is ticking, we tend to find ways to work more words onto the page.


As we conclude, I challenge my students (and anyone reading this) to live like writers, to observe the world like writers, to take notes and take stock. Feel fully that thick, humid breeze or hear the birdsong during morning walks—hear what is always there but you never pay attention to.

Carry a notebook. When you come up with a beautiful line, a new insight, a new observation, or just pure guttural emotion, write it down as soon as you can. Explore it on the page. And through all your observing and listening, keep your new character in the back of your mind.

As you live, this character solidifies. And as you continue to write, I suggest creating a few more and traveling with them, too, examining the world through multiple sets of eyes, and writing when so moved to do so. In this way, characters become vehicles by which to study the world. They can return in different scenarios or deliver a single message and move on.

The more I write, the more likely it is I’ll see a character return, only with each story she becomes stronger, more defined. Sometimes characters from different stories end up meeting in a narrative some months or years down the line. Sometimes, they fizzle out. But when we know our characters, really know them, our writing feels less like work and more like opportunity, a journey.

Guest Post, Jen Knox: Burning My First Words

My writing is better than it once was. I could be so bold as to say my writing is much better than it once was. When I examine old work from an emotional standpoint, I sometimes feel the urge to burn all those old tester stories, sentimental poems and heavy-handed essays. When I examine older work logically, however, I am proud of sticking with it for so long. I have put in my 10,000 hours and then some, after all, so why not hold my head high? Here’s the thing about writing, or at least my personal relationship with writing: logic is easy to forget.

I have drawers full of old notebooks, mostly pocket-sized deals that I used to carry everywhere, in case I had a story idea or came up with the perfect way to describe a character. I figured it was part of being a writer to pluck quirky quips, fancy words and epiphanies from the air as they floated by, and I was so incredibly afraid of missing one. I felt lost if my notebook was not nearby. When I first started writing creatively in college, I wrote constantly. I was late to the game, I thought, but I had arrived ready to make up for lost time.

It was all so romantic. I imagined a life of breezy insights piling up and turning into great works people would devour; readers would offer massive amounts of, if not money, praise in response to my insight, and all the support would keep me well-equipped to continue doing what I loved. I envisioned myself reading work in front of crowded rooms. Perhaps the notebook I was carrying would be auctioned off for great sums in the future; I thought these things, but wouldn’t dare say them for fear of sounding full of my future self.

When reading my work from five years ago, I often wonder if I should own my mistakes or scribble over them, bury them beneath other words, better words. It is tempting to hide one’s flaws and move forward—nowhere but forward.

Recently, I have been thinking about this duality a lot. I have work that I wrote some years ago, such as my short story, “Disengaged,” which appears in v4 of s[r], that still feels right to me, but I also have work I want to burn, throw into a fire ceremoniously, watching as amber sparks turn to ashes and misplaced words disappear.

Jen KnoxIf you can, imagine yourself with me, toasting to the cremation of your well-intended misses. What are we be burning, failures? Incomplete thoughts? Under-developed plots? Unlikable characters? Clichés? And what happens after these words are burned? Will we have successfully fooled everyone, even ourselves, to think writing is easy and success feels as natural as the pen does in our hands? Perhaps. More likely, though, we’ll have to arrange another burning of our current work some time from now. Then, all will be clean, pristine and unblemished. Then again, maybe there will be another burning and another.

My relationship with writing seems one in which I am never wholly satisfied, but here’s my point in this blog: This is good! I have come to the conclusion that owning my flaws and misses and failures is what truly makes me a writer. A writer’s dues are high and increasing year by year. There seem more writers and fewer readers every passing day, yet we endure because we must do what we do. We must write.

When I meet with the energy and hope of a new writer, I encourage him or her wholeheartedly. I nurture the talents I see buried when I teach creative writing, and I watch, happily, as the buried voice begins to surface. If a writer has a smaller vocabulary than her peers or a tendency to over-write, I tell that writer to keep at it. Every word matters, I say. There are no wasted words. I give this advice over and over. I say you never know what gems are in your writing, so never, never throw anything away. Never, never be embarrassed of your journey. It is a journey.

I say this to those emerging writers, to myself, to anyone who writes. Let’s own those early words. Let’s share them and show the journey. Because much like in any good story, there must be change. The story of a writer is no different.