When young writers describe characters, they almost universally make them flat goodie-goodies who might have problems, but little psychological depth. Or they don’t have enough conflict at all. Waggoner has students first write a character description, then pass that description to a neighbor. The neighbor is told to “do something mean to the character.” Then they pass it back and the writer must work with the problem that’s given — often a violent one. —Mike Arnzen describes a talk by Tim Waggoner. —Waggoner on Teaching Creative Writing (Pedablogue)
In order to limber up brain-dead students (after they have turned in a major assignment) I sometimes use something similar — a “tandem writing” exercise, modeled after what is almost certainly a fictional e-text that I first received in e-mail many years ago.
When I use it, I’m not so much intersted in what they do with their characters, but instead in getting them to see the value of having actual, significant opposition within their academic papers.