At the Wordstock teachers' workshop a couple of weeks ago, one of my brilliant I-want-to-be-him-when-I-grow-up instructors helped with characterization by having us write:
___________ is the kind of person who ____________.
We had to come up with one negative and one positive trait that would illuminate our character. I wrote "Jake is the kind of person who smokes on campus even when the principal's watching" and "Jake is the kind of person who visits his grandmother every weekend." I was amazed at how simple yet effective this exercise was - this kid I created in my mind just minutes before was suddenly taking moral shape, which is usually much harder to establish than physical shape. I wanted to write more about him! And I wanted to write about everyone around me...
In the creative writing class I'm teaching, I have already given this assignment. It was hard for students to go beyond the obvious at first - when I asked them to make up a statement about me, they started with "Mrs. S is the kind of person who wears a green sweater." I asked what that tells about my character; we agreed not much. I think they were a little nervous about using me as an example, which is understandable, but I prompted them with questions - How do you think I talk to my kids? Where do you think I shop? Who do you think I stalk at grocery & video stores? (KIDDING) They finally settled on "Mrs. S is the kind of person who notices lots of little things." Which we determined is good and annoying, but mostly good.
Now try not to do this the next time you're standing in line somewhere.