the character poem

An exercise I like, a variation on the traditional character sketch, is a character poem I adapted from a now forgotten source (sorry source) a couple decades back. (The bookends of the poem are based on the Biblical idea that if a city had even one good person living in it, God would save that city for the sake of that righteous soul.) The exercise appeals to me because it demonstrates how, in only a few words, a character can seem real to the reader. Here’s the formula.

Line #1: Surely the world would be saved for ________________ (insert character’s name here.)

Line #2: (One sentence describing some aspect of that character’s body or face. Make it detailed or unusual.)

Line #3: (One sentence describing something this character can do. A talent or skill or personality trait that is again either unusual or described in great detail.)

Line #4: (One sentence describing some action this character has taken. Works best if it’s a gesture or act that betters the world in some way.)

Line #5: Surely the world will be saved for _______________ (insert the name again.)

Here’s an example:

Surely the world would be saved for Gus.

His hands are so big he can hold his baby son in one palm.

He can carve any animal out of a chunk or pine, even ones he’s never laid eyes on, in less time than it takes to sing all the verses of a hymn.

He built a fake mill over a dry stream for the slaves to rest in on their way north.

Surely the world will be saved for Gus.

Or :

Surely the world would be saved for Hannah.

She has a scar on her right knee from trying to fly out her window toward Neverland.

She can do the calls of thirteen different birds good enough to fool a cat at ten paces.

She once spent three days in jail for protecting the identity of a source for her story on battered women.

Surely the world will be saved for Hannah.

I usually use this exercise for my protagonist or secondary characters, but it would be interesting to use on an antagonist.

I wonder if the world might be saved for Lillian?

In an attempt to look young, she has tanned herself into cocoa-brown creases.

She can bring a waitress to tears in under a minute.

In her high school production of Little Women she read for the role of Jo, but was cast as Aunt Josephine.

Surely the world could be saved even for Lillian.

Try this exercise on your hero or villain. Or your best friend or mom. You could even write one about yourself.

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4 Responses to “the character poem”

  1. K-Fed Says:

    Surely the world will be saved for K-Fed.

    His abs have greater tone than the London Symphony Orchestra.

    The only person in the world who can win a game of sit-ups.

    Who once hacked down a giant redwood with his bare hands.

    Surely the world will be saved for K-Fed.

    Oh, I could do these all day. I need to write one about my manly chin.

  2. fiona Says:

    Surely the world will be saved for the kittens.

    Tiny paws across my fathers hood,
    rat-like claws make Symphonies in car,
    in mind. The only creatures in the world who can sleep all day
    and maintain definite charm.

    Little licks. Precious prints. Secret knowledge, stored sweet and safe inside.

    Surely the world will be saved for the Kittens.

    Oh, I could do these all day, too.

  3. Pearly Shongo Says:

    Many thanks for the article. I liked it. You have a very well-done blog.

  4. Johnny Pets Says:

    Hello, I don’t agree with everything in this write-up, but you do make some very good points. I’m very interested in this matter and I myself do alot of research as well. Either way it was a well thoughtout and nice read so I figured I would leave you a comment.

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