Have Shocking Coffee With Your Lead Character

by James Scott Bell

In my one-day workshops I do an exercise called “Shocking Coffee.” You, the author, imagine you are seated with your main character over a cup of coffee. She tells you she doesn’t think you’ve quite captured her. That surprises you a bit. I mean, after all, you created her.

So you ask, “In what way?” And your character tells you something that shocks you. What is it? (I have the students write for one minute.)

Then I say: You’ve spit out your coffee. Your character hands you a napkin and then tells you something even more shocking! (Write for one minute.)

I was conducting this at a recent conference, and while the students were writing a voice said, “Wow!”

Another voice chimed in. “Exactly!”

And everyone laughed. When we were done I asked a few people to share what they’d come up with. One woman said this clarified the entire novel for her. Another said this offered a whole new direction she’d never thought of.

But one student, a middle-aged man, seemed troubled. He had explained earlier in the workshop that his story was about a man carrying around a load of guilt because he’d accidentally killed his brother years ago. He fears that if his secret ever gets out it will hurt a number of people.

Now he said, “The more shocking thing he told me was that he intended to kill his brother, because he was jealous.”

There were audible oohs and ahhs throughout the room.

“But,” the man protested, “this would make him totally unsympathetic.”

The oohs and ahhs turned to No! and You’re wrong! 

I asked the students, “Who is more interested in this book now?”

All the hands shot up.

The author still seemed confused.

I told him it doesn’t matter where the character has come from, or what he’s done, so long as he’s got the capacity to change and the will to try. We will follow a character like that, hoping for his redemption. Indeed, it’s one of the most powerful engines of fiction.

What had just happened was that the author, by way of a simple exercise, had gone deeper into his material than ever before. Before, he’d stopped at a “safe place.” Now he had pushed past that, and it scared him a little.

Which, I told him, is a good thing, because that’s where originality comes from. (For more on this, see my post here.)

To push through the safe places, try these exercises:

  1. Have a cup of shocking coffee with your Lead. Shocking and more shocking.
  2. Chair through the window: Imagine your character in a nice room with a big, bay window. She picks up a chair and throws it through the glass. Why would she do that? Come up with a reason. Next, write a crazy reason she’d do that. What is this telling you about your Lead?
  3. Closet search: What does your character have hidden in her closet that she doesn’t want anyone—anyone—to find?

More material like this can be found in my course, Writing a Novel They Can’t Put Down.

So when was the last time one of your characters surprised you? Did you go with it or resist it? What techniques do you use to deepen characters in your fiction? 

40 thoughts on “Have Shocking Coffee With Your Lead Character

  1. The sheer brilliance of this exercise cannot be overstated.
    It just seems so fecund, so out of the box that it’s bound to yield some dark pearls.
    Now I want to attend your seminar.
    When’s your European Tour due?

    In selfless retribution, I will now dispense free career advice. The time has come for you, good Sir, having covered the basics, from Dialogue to Voice, to get into genre. Will you do a favour to mankind and deliver a tome on how to write Murder Mysteries?

    You’d get filthy rich, I say.

    And all I ask in return for having helped to further propel your already established career is a signed copy of the first paperback edition of “How to Write damn great Murder Mysteries” by J. S. Bell.

    I’m modest like that.

    This was a brilliant post, Mr. Bell. I came up with my protagonist having tortured an opponent in the past, out of sadism.

    It would be mean and selfish and simply not too nice to deprive the world of this kind of insights when applied to whodunits. Mr. Bell, do consider it.

    I’ll email you my address later. Have the autograph be legible, if you’d be so kind. And please make sure that paperback is tightly wrapped in bubble film.

    The postal service around here is barbaric.


  2. I remember this exercise from the Colorado Gold conference. Right now, I’m starting a new novel (not quite 10K in), and almost everything my lead characters do surprises me. My hero confessed he’s very susceptible to motion sickness. I’ve got two boat trips on the tour he’s taking. My heroine opened her suitcase and pulled out a container of cremains.
    But I think it’s going to be the bad guy who’s going to have the biggest surprises for me.

  3. Brilliant exercise, Jim! I already regularly employ your technique where the author “interviews” characters and listens to what they reveal. But this idea goes to an ever deeper level. It lets your subconscious flow free and great material bubbles up.

    My WIP is book #4 in a series with two continuing main characters. At this point, their personalities are well established. But the male lead surprised me when he admitted he’d almost murdered his father when he was 16. Book #2, Stalking Midas, had already examined their contentious relationship in depth but he didn’t mention the attempted murder until now.

    Characters keep secrets from the author until they’re needed. Or until the author has shocking coffee with them.

  4. As I was finishing my first novel, the hero showed up in a dream. We were in the student union of my alma mater where parts of the novel were set, and we had a soft drink and talked. Nothing shocking, but it was a weird confirmation that I understood him, and I was totally bonkers.

    • I wrote a six book historical series, and was so into the research that I actually daydreamed and “saw” my MC walking down the street, in her period dress. Was I going nuts or just working? Maybe for writers it’s a bit of both…

  5. This is weird. My MC, Annie, just told me this morning, before I got out of bed, something that has gotten my brain. The boys (or girls) in the basement are buzzing like bees over a carcass.

    Then, I open TKZ and read this.

    She told me something that makes me think she’s me. I’ve wondered from time to time if that’s so, but today I’m sure.

    Annie says to me…she says, “I’ve lived my life always waiting for the other shoe to drop.” Shazam! I can’t tell you the effect those words had on me. I’ll let Annie tell you, if you read the novel.

    This morning was a mirror moment…for me! (Is there such a thing as a mirror moment for the author?)

    I’m about 36k words into it, lots of stuff has happened, and now this. I got up, threw my sweats on, and charged to my office, telling her to go away and leave me alone. “You’re not me-you’re you,” I yell over my shoulder. (Okay, that was just a bit of drama there…)

    I’m not sure what new direction this revelation is going to take us, but I just turned my GPS off. I already have the end of the novel written, but I’m sure it will stay the same. Maybe. No sense getting all frothy about it if Annie takes us there by a different route.

      • Yes, indeed. And I forgot to say that I’ll be texting Annie today to invite her to coffee.

        I love the writing exercises you teach. I think “shocking coffee” fits nicely with voice journals-a spicy additive to sprinkle in a pinch of flavor.

        Thanks for sharing you with us, Mr. Bell. I’m truly grateful for the learnin’…

  6. Timely post. I’ve been struggling with why my MC is so determined to prove the innocence of someone who is just a past acquaintance, not a real friend. I came up with what I thought was a pretty good reason – a secret from her past that involved that acquaintance. But I’m looking forward to having that second cup of coffee with her. There’s still something she’s not telling me.

    Oh, and coffee plays a starring role in my new book as well. Love it when the planets align.

    • What a great feeling, Kay: there’s something she’s not telling me. The excitement of discovery is just around the corner!

      And a starring role for coffee is always a good idea.

  7. Jim,

    Thanks for sharing this! What a fantastic exercise. I can’t wait to try it. Years ago, I took a workshop from fantasy author Charles De Lint. His approach to characterization is like meeting someone for the first time, say for coffee, and how you get to know them over the course of a conversation. This turbo charges that.

    Not only will it help me with the hero, it will help me with the supporting characters and the villain. One thing I continually need to remind myself is to get to know the villain, and the other characters, and not just focus on the hero.

    My go-to technique has been journaling about my characters, something I got from David Morrell. I’ve also done the character interview, which I took from one of your books IIRC 🙂

    • I like that David Morrell method, too, Dale. I believe he said he looks for his “inner ferret” that way, the thing that is gnawing at him to write the story. Good stuff.

  8. This post is a really great reminder to think out of the box. Trust your gut to leap to a surprising action because in your creator brain, you KNOW more than you think you do if you free your mind. Untether it.

    Do you find that your author mind has become more willing to explore the unexpected, the more you write? That through the creative writing experience, you have evolved without even trying?

    I can’t even go to social occasions without stifling my author brain…otherwise I might be arrested.

    Thanks, Jim. Have a good Sunday.

    • Totally with you on that, Jordan. We go to comfort a sick friend in the hospital, and even as we take her hand part of us is thinking, “This would make a great scene…I wonder what that machine is called?”

    • Oooh…I love these discussions. It’s like we’re sitting down together in the local coffee shop, speaking our own secret language to each other.

      Yes, Jordan, you’re so totally spot-on. “Do you find that your author mind has become more willing to explore the unexpected, the more you write? That through the creative writing experience, you have evolved without even trying?”

      I feel like my first attempts at writing were in my toddler stage. But, even as I work and re-work just one scene, I try go deeper each time, still while cutting unnecessary words. Paring down fluff reveals the heart of the scene. Then, I can dive still deeper under the surface, going where no Deb has gone before. I’m experiencing this phenomenon with my current WIP.

      As Kay D. says above, there is something Annie’s keeping from me and I’m determined to ferret it out. But part of me is afraid to, because I might find myself…

  9. In one of your books or blogs—you’ve written so much—you said to give a protagonist a secret past that he has not shared. So I asked myself, why does a professional problem solver drink so much when it comes to solving his own problems. I assumed that question was good enough left as an irony. But when my deep dive discovered-then-created a teenage indiscretion which ruined his best friend’s life, I received a whole new perspective the protagonist’s current struggle.

    Your stuff works!

  10. Brilliant exercises, Jim! My character surprised me two days ago when he did something I never saw coming (even at the planning stage), and I couldn’t wait to find out why. That’s all I can say. It’s too deliciously evil. 😉

  11. What a great idea, Jim! I love the have them do something crazy then figure out the reason why idea. Making a note of that!

    When I’m desperate, I do something similar, I sit down and interview the character who’s giving me trouble. I love how they argue with me. And yes, I realize how insane that sounds to a non-writer. Let me share a bit of my last one with a guy who did NOT want to play:

    Okay, Mr. Flynn, talk to me.

    What I said.

    Why not?
    I don’t talk to strangers.

    Oh, that’s a hoot. Given I made you up.
    Then you should already know everything, shouldn’t you?

    Would that it worked that way…. What are you afraid of?
    Many things. And nothing.

    Let me rephrase—I forgot how stubborn you guys can be. Wonder why that is?
    Do you really want me to answer that?
    And so it went. I finally got his problem out of him, but it was an effort. And once I did, the rest of the story sort of rolled out in front of me.

    Now if I could just figure out why I’m so stubborn and only do that as a last resort. Obviously MY problem, not theirs.

    Thanks again, you’re one of my first stops on Sundays!

  12. I am stealing this. But will give you proper credit. Thanks!

    Sometimes, writers just need a different way out of their box. This is a brilliant variation on the old — but valuable — question: What does your character really want? Not on the superficial level, but in this gut, heart and soul. But to explain it THIS way makes it more personal, more get-able. (Is that a word?). And by imagining this conversation, it also forces you to talk to your writer self on a deeper level.

    I hope that man in your class had the courage to move forward with his revelation. Nothing good ever happens from playing it safe.

  13. This is my new favourite exercise.

    I did something similar to it for another character in another novel I was working on, but the questions to get at characterisation were a bit off-the-wall: “what does your office look like” (my guy didnt’ have an office), and “what’s the worst thing you did as a teenager” (typical teenage stuff, but with magic). I got a lot of good characterisation out of him, but didn’t receive anything shocking.

    But, this exercise? I’ve learned a few more things about my girl that makes me raise my eyebrows, especially when it comes to the reasons she’s thrown the chair at the window.

  14. I came across this blog via Terry Odell’s newsletter. This is advice is golden and just what I needed. I’m on my 4th romantic suspense but wasn’t getting very far as the hero felt so one dimensional. Great guy—and maybe that’s the problem. We’re going to have that cup of coffee.

  15. What a brilliant idea! As always, Sir, you are full of wonderful advice. I’d praise you some more, but I have a coffee date with my MC, Detective Anais Quinn. Good thing she takes her coffee like I do!

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