Writing Characters with Accountability: A Challenge!

Cynthia Hand writing challengeCynthia Hand is the bestselling author of the UNEARTHLY series. (You can start reading the newest book, Boundless, right here on Figment.) She has an MFA in fiction writing from Boise State University and a PhD from the University of Nebraska. These days Cynthia lives in California with her family and she teaches creative writing at Pepperdine University. 

Since Cynthia’s both a writer AND a teacher, we were thrilled when she offered to share a writing exercise with us. And we’ve added on a writing challenge!

Check out the exercise below and then enter the challenge. We’ll be featuring five challenge winners on the Figment homepage!

Rookie writers tend to create characters that are versions of themselves, minus the flaws. So today we’re going to do an exercise fighting this idea of picture-perfect characters. We want to write about a character that makes a real conscious choice to do something that is morally ambiguous or a deliberate mistake, something that there will be consequences for.

The author Charles Baxter claims that, “Most of us are interested in characters who willingly give up their innocence and decide to act badly. I myself am fascinated when they not only do that but admit that they did it, that they had good reasons for doing so. At such moment wrongdoing becomes intelligible.” So, today we are going to seek accountability for our characters.

Here we go:

1. First, think about one of your characters, preferably a main character or the narrator if your story is in first person. Think about what this character wants and what might be stopping him from getting what he wants. What makes this character angry? Give yourself a few minutes to stew in the character’s conflict.

2. Now, for a time at least, put your story’s current arc aside. We are going to think outside the box. Make a list of things that your character might do to get what she wants or ways that the character will vent her anger or frustration. Write quickly; don’t over-think it. Be sure to write down things that YOU YOURSELF might never do, things that are morally offensive or an obvious mistake. This doesn’t have to be an extreme, like murdering someone, but a deliberate action that will certainly have consequences.

3. Pick the thing off the list that seems the most interesting, the thing that would provide the most tension.

4. Write a quick scene in which your character performs this action. Do not set it up with a lot of summary or explanation. Think of it like a movie—you can only show us the action of the story, not tell it. Anton Chekhov tells writers to “. . . shun all descriptions of the character’s spiritual state. You must try to have that state emerge from their actions . . . The artist must be only an impartial witness of his characters and what they said, not their judge.” So our goal in writing this scene is to write about a character’s questionable action without any judgment of that character.

5. What will the consequences of this action be? Make a quick list of the possible fallout.

Congrats—you’ve just dragged your character onto shaky moral ground—but your story will almost certainly be better for it.

Writing challenge:


In 500 words or fewer, go through all five steps on Cynthia’s exercise.

1. Identify the character.
2. Make a list of 3 to 5 things your character would do to vent their anger.
3. Pick the one thing on the list you think is most interesting/will cause the most conflict
4. Write a short scene where your character performs the action.
5. Make a list of 3 to 5 possible consequences for their behavior.

Entries must have all five steps in order to qualify. Tag your story CharacterChallenge. Entries are due by Monday, February 18 at 11:59 p.m. ET. Five entries will be chosen to to be featured on the Figment homepage.

Cynthia Hand on her favorite writing spot (pictured above): “And here’s my pic of my favorite place to write. It’s the library at Pepperdine University, cushy chair, overlooking the ocean with the smell of books and the quiet rustle of pages. Makes me want to go there right now.”

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20 thoughts on “Writing Characters with Accountability: A Challenge!

  1. Is the hysteria entries being posted here by acident??? The tag seems to be sending them here instead of the character challenge ones……

    it may just be me though o.O

  2. I know this has been asked already, but do we only post the scene or so we post all five steps? If the latter is the case here, Do all the other steps count towards the word limit, or only the scene we write to accompany them?

    Also, can we use fan characters that we’re writing a fanfic about for this, or only completely original ones? And does the scene we write have to become a part of the story, or can it just exist outside of canon if we don’t want to/can’t find a way to work it in?

    • “Entries must have all five steps in order to qualify.” Please include all the steps! The entire piece should be under the word limit.

  3. Hey, so usually contests/challenges can only be entered if you live in the US, but I haven’t seen anything about that. Does that mean I can (Finally) enter a Figment contest?

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