Ever feel like your characters are a little flat? They just go through the motions you set for them without much personality. When I run into this problem I use the Ice Cream Test. It’s a small exercise that helps flesh out characters and focus on the way they think. Want to give it a try? Okay:
Imagine it’s a really hot day. What sort of frozen treat does your character make to cool off?
That’s it. It sounds simple enough, but that simple question can lead you down a rabbit hole of character analysis. To see how something as small as what kind of dessert they like can really say about your characters I’ll give you an example using the brothers in my WIP YA series.
- Keith, the oldest is in his thirties–stubborn, no-nonsense, and enjoys hard work and manual labor. He would choose a large bowl of Rocky Road ice cream. It’s full of rich flavors, but he can just scoop them all out of one carton. Keith and my main character Jack also bump heads often, so Rocky Road symbolizes their relationship pretty well (The danger here is that Rocky Road might be a little too on-the-nose. If I wanted to make a metaphor out of it I wouldn’t want to get heavy-handed with it at all).
- Craig is a mechanic and in his spare time he likes to work out. He would reach for a peanut butter and banana smoothie with extra protein powder added in. See? Clean simple characterization that builds on what’s already been established about him without going too far out of the box.
- Douglas works as a police officer and he’s a little unpredictable. He doesn’t usually say much, but there’s a lot going on behind his quiet demeanor. His dessert of choice would be rainbow sherbet. Like Keith he doesn’t want to go through the hassle of mixing ingredients, but the sherbet is cold, refreshing, and might be considered an unexpected choice.
- Ross is the middle brother and he prefers the company of animals to people. He’s often cranky and sarcastic and difficult to work with. He would opt for a popsicle–the vanilla ones with the chocolate coating. It’s a snack he can grab and take with him so he doesn’t have to spend any more time in the kitchen than he has to.
- Glen is the cook in the family. He’s warm, friendly, and nurturing, but when it comes to food he’s also a bit of a perfectionist. He would go for an ice cream sundae with all the trimmings. Not only would it taste great but it would look like it belonged on a food blog.
- Logan is the flirt. He’s charismatic but undisciplined, and he spends most of his time trying to pick up girls. He would prefer a cone, but since he’s too lazy to scoop any ice cream himself he likes the prepackaged waffle cones with vanilla ice cream and a thin chocolate crust.
- Last of all is my main character, Jack. Jack is a pretty easy going, seventeen-year-old guy. Since he’s the youngest he’s used to being babied by his mother and older brothers, so his first choice would be to have whatever Glen was fixing. If left to his own devices though he would have a couple scoops of vanilla with chocolate sauce squirted on top. He doesn’t want to go through the trouble of gathering all the ingredients Glen uses and then having to clean them up, but he’ll put in the bare minimum to come close.
Now, you can go as in-depth or superficial as you want with this exercise. Contrast what your character prefers when they are the ones preparing it vs. what they might order at an ice cream shop. Or think about what they would prefer to eat vs. what they actually have on hand. When they open their refrigerator is it stocked with food? Do they want tiramisu but have to make do with ice cubes? Are their preferences refined or traditional? Sugary sweet or health-conscious? If you stop to consider the answers it can really bring their personalities to life along with the worlds they inhabit.
One final note. I personally wouldn’t try to write a whole scene around them eating ice cream just to show off my character-building. This exercise is meant to be a reference rather than an addition to your story. If you find that it comes up naturally then it can be a subtle way to delve into your characters’ psyches. But subtly is the key word there. Like Keith and his Rocky Road, if it’s too obvious then it feels like a clunky cliche rather than an insightful observation. Let me know whether this technique helps you.
Feel free to share any of your own tricks and tips for creating fully-realized characters. And if you’re interested in my method for outlining a story once I’ve figured out my characters you can check it out here.