Life Writing Practice: intrinsic and extrinsic character traits

Ahhhh, another Wednesday writing session. This is a time where you shut off the white noise in your life, reflect, and hopefully end up with writing you’re proud of. Since we are focusing on life writing still, we’re now honing in on intrinsic and extrinsic qualities of character building. The twist is, you’ll be writing about someone you intimately know.

Set aside between 30 minutes to an hour to work on this session. Squeeze it in when you can. Like I’ve said before, some of these writing ideas have been inspired by others online, creative writing books, and past writing classes. Some are original. Now they are yours.

I think that wraps up the introduction, so let’s get to work. Silence your phone and grab your journal and a pen.


Start with a stream of consciousness. Set a timer for 2 minutes, put your pen to paper (or fingers to keys) and start writing. Don’t stop until the timer goes off. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, hurting anyone’s feelings. Just get it out. After the timer goes off you can burn it or delete it, but GET IT OUT. I consider this to be a brain dump before I can let my true creativity come to the surface, though sometimes there are gems within the nonsense. Underline anything that sparks something for you.

Writing Exercise:

Pick a person you know well. This could be a coworker, a sibling, a coach. It could be yourself. When you close your eyes can you imagine them? Do you know their personality traits, positive and negative? Good.

Write two lists on your page. Label them ‘Extrinsic’ and ‘Intrinsic’.

In the in extrinsic list, write bullet points about how this person looks on the outside. What colors does he wear? Does she wear her glasses low on their nose? Do they live in their Timberlands? Converse? What is their face shape, their hair color? What does their smile look like? Your role for this column is to paint a picture of them with your words.

In the intrinsic list, write bullet points about this person’s personality, behaviors, and habits. What makes her roll her eyes? Does he have a short temper? Do they bite their nails? How’s their self-esteem? What would they rather be doing?

Make the lists as long and descriptive as you possibly can. I recommend working on this for at least 10 minutes.

Keep in mind that you never have to show anyone this writing, it’s simply to help you understand how to create a well-rounded character. No character should be completely good or evil; what makes them feel real is the gray area. Your job is to find it.

Writing Prompt:

Now that you’ve laid out all of these qualities, positive and negative, intrinsic and extrinsic, your next job is to write.

Drop this person into a scene with you. You’re meeting them for coffee at a local cafe and catching up. ‘It’s been too long, hasn’t it?’ If you’re comfortable writing dialogue, write as much as you can. If not, keep it descriptive and use the lists you just wrote. Bring this real person to life on your page. Give yourself 15-20 minutes to write. Anything you want to resolve with this person? Questions you want to ask them? Create it.

Annnnnnnnd you’re done. Close your journal.

We’ll be tackling a range of other writing topics, poetry and prose alike in future weeks. Come back to visit anytime you’re craving structure for your writing time. If you feel inspired to share your writing from this session, please comment below, or link to your own website.

Happy writing!

Love, Emma

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