One thing about the craft of writing is that it’s just like any other talent. We can always improve, and there are several ways to do it. Of course, consuming the craft is one way that can help us improve and writers should never stop reading. However, improvement is just like working out a muscle, and a healthy diet (reading) isn’t enough by itself. Exercise is also important.
This writing exercise is one that I hope we all are already familiar with in some form or another. There’s a joke, the saying that “writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia”, and part of that is because of our constant need to talk with our characters. “The Cafe” is just such a type of writing exercise.
The exercise is entirely mental and works like this: I pick a role (friend, business partner, reporter, date) and ask my character to go to a pretentious cafe with me. The conversation we have there is important, of course, but other things are, too. Why a pretentious cafe? I want to see how the character reacts to the setting. Is he comfortable? Or is he shifting around in his seat and balking at the prices on the menu? What does she order? Does she thank the waitress when she brings us our drinks? Does he give the waitress a flirtatious wink or ogle her behind as she walks away? What does she seem to think of the people around us? What did she wear to this cafe? That last question is why I first invite her – if I just plop us both in the cafe, he doesn’t get a chance to consider what he’s going to wear to this particular meeting at this particular cafe. Does he dress up for a date at a nice cafe? What does she consider business formal? Even if you don’t want to admit it, even if you staunchly believe that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, the way a person dresses says a lot about them. And it will give you an idea of how your other characters might react to him or her. As a side note, if a pretentious cafe is going to take your character wildly out of their time period, you might want to give them a little anachronism knowledge, or adjust the cafe to be a little more period for your character. To see a character wildly confused by anachronisms, however, can be interesting, too.
Before I perform this exercise, I’ll usually come up with a list of appropriate questions to ask them. Appropriate meaning, appropriate to my role. If I want to ask them about their personal life, I’ll go out with them as a friend or date, not a potential employer or whatever. But a character’s answer to a business interview can give you some interesting insights, too, so don’t throw that role out so easily, either. Questions and reactions and answers can all become very interesting when I mix things up with the ‘date’ option. I myself am a straight woman – so what happens when I try to go out with a straight female character? (How did that scenario even happen? Did a trolling friend try to set us up on a blind date, knowing we’re both straight? Were one of us misinformed as to what was going on?) What does the outing change into when we realize there was some mistake made and this pairing isn’t appropriate? And what happens when I date a straight male, but our relationship is immediately, obviously not going to work? Or it could, and our mental conversation brings up the fact that actually, I’m already married?
The purpose of this meeting is less to get questions answered because characters can be very begrudging with information about themselves. The purpose is to get as many reactions from them as possible, so you can get to know them. Reactions to circumstance, the questions themselves, events…
Some other spots I enjoy are: a dorm room (myself and my main villain, a high fantasy overlord, are now roommates. What happens? He arrives the day before school starts, after I’ve spent a week decorating our little room, spends a minute looking at it, says I need to paint the walls black, take down all my dragon posters, get him some silk sheets instead of the cotton crap he has, and it needs to be done today. He then walks out to get a coffee and won’t come back until I’ve done as he’s said.); A park with a large pond, perhaps we’ve gone fishing or to feed the ducks; Sitting next to each other on an airplane.
The other point about looking for reactions rather than answers to conversation is that this already puts you in the right mindset for showing, rather than telling. You can see how your character acts: write that. Just like that. You saw how your little sidekick support character is constantly jerking his head around to look over his shoulder. You saw how your evil butler sat with his back in a perfectly straight line, his elbows never touched the table, and how he raised his beverage to his lips with his pinky extended. That’s much better than saying “he had a nervous tick” or “he had perfect posture”, in the case of showing rather than telling.
This exercise does become a little less possible with characters you can’t go out with. I would never take out, under any circumstances, my psychopath, for instance. Because he would murder me, a lot, in the face. And one of my overlord’s right-hand men is the worst kind of womanizer, so I’m not about to go anywhere near him. Perhaps if I stick him in a jail and give myself a reinforced glass barrier as we discuss things over the phone like they do in prisons…But for those characters that are a little less dangerous, take them to a pretentious cafe and see what they do.