The Cup of Sonder Technique| 100 Character-based Writing Prompts

You have writer’s block. You’ve been sitting there in front of a blank page for hours and nothing is happening. Or do you feel like all you do is write about yourself? 

I struggle with empathy. As a writer, that is a handicap. I find myself too focused on my own world and my own goals that I seldom take the time to acknowledge others.

Writing is good medicine for the unempathetic, but like meditation, it is something I need to practice. 

Here is how you can practice writing and strengthen your empathy skills. 

Allow me to introduce this idea to you. I call this The Cup of Sonder technique. You might have heard this word before, Sonder. 

Sonder is the realization that everyone you see passing by is living a life as rich and complex as yours. 

It’s basically people-watching. Sit at a coffee shop, sip your americano, and look out the window. Watch as the characters pass by. All you are given are their external traits. 

Pick a person and fill in the colours of their lives.

Where are they going? What are they concerned about? What are they looking forward to? 

Start writing all of this down and begin to create a world around these serendipitous characters. 

I know it’s not the best time to be outside, people watching… 

So, if you can’t go sit at a coffee shop and delve into sonder, I have created a list of 100 writing prompts below. Each one is designed with 3-5 traits of a stranger passing by.

Please feel free to write about these characters:

1. A woman with a ponytail and large round glasses is wearing a trenchcoat and holding a briefcase.
2. A burly man with a large beard and a big belly is wearing boots.
3. An older woman in an expensive jacket is shouting at someone ahead of her.
4. A man wearing a tank top with tattoos on his exposed arm is walking casually with a smile.
5. A young boy with a green cap is carrying a big case, walking purposefully.
6. A curly-haired woman in a denim jacket is locking up a bike.
7. A woman in a long purple dress that exposes her shoulder is smoking a cigarette and listening to music with big headphones.
8. An elderly man — with a thick mustache, has his hands in his pants pockets — is looking up at the top of a building.
9. A 300-pound man with small glasses is texting urgently on his phone.
10. A boy with long hair is brushing the tears out of his eyes.
11. A bald woman is wearing a fur coat and walking a large 200lb dog.
12. A skinny man wearing a construction vest and a hard hat is covered in soot.
13. A man with his hair dyed green, wearing a black trench coat and holding a cane, stands idly waiting for the traffic lights to change.
14. A woman, wearing yoga pants and a tank top with pigtails, is carrying a bag of groceries.
15. A man with tangled hair, wearing a sports team hoodie, is walking an old bike with the loose chains.
16. A teenage girl, with a fluorescent pink backpack, is listening to music and nodding her head to the beat of the song.
17. A large man is looking at a piece of paper in his hands, shaking his head in frustration, and swearing loudly to himself.
18. A mother, wearing an expensive green dress, is pulling her son who is resisting her command.
19. An old woman, dressed in a red velvet coat, is pushing a dolly of full plastic bags.
20. A man, with sunglasses and a popped polo shirt collar, is spinning his keys on his finger and whistling a song.
21. A large woman in a baggy black hoodie and sweatpants jogs by.
22. A thin man, wearing a baseball cap backward and a small black t-shirt, is walking with a limp.
23. A man, with a strong build and short brown hair, is holding his phone, looking up occasionally, and reading the street signs.
24. A bigger man, in a brown sweater and a toque (beanie), wearing earphones, is walking with one hand in his pocket.
25. A woman, in blue jeans and a blue tank top that might be a one-piece swimsuit, passes by holding a bicycle helmet.
26. An elderly lady, wearing a blue bucket hat and carrying a backpack in front of her, is looking into a window of a restaurant.
27. A man — wearing sunglasses, a gray blazer, and shorts — crosses the street, while drinking a cup of coffee.
28. A teenage boy in a striped shirt is holding a bouquet of flowers like it is a suitcase.
29. A dad, crossing the street carrying a toddler and holding the hand of an older child, is expressionless as he picks up a shoe that fell from his toddler’s foot.
30. A woman with long brown hair stops to look through a shopping bag she was carrying.
31. A younger woman with crutches and a leg in a cast hobbles past.
32. A small woman with big glasses in a fluorescent raincoat is holding a mailing tube tightly.
33. A man with bed head hair is wearing earphones, scrolling through his phone, and looking up now and then to avoid hitting anyone.
34. A well-dressed woman hands her boyfriend her phone and poses along the street for a photo.
35. A large man, wearing a construction helmet, is taking notes on a tattered notepad.
36. A man, with a baseball cap and big lumberjack beard, is walking with a cane.
37. A woman — with short blonde hair, black sunglasses, and a turtleneck — is waving at someone across the street.
38. An unshaven man with greasy hair, wearing a polo shirt, is holding a door open.
39. A woman in scrubs is untangling her earphone cords while holding her tablet.
40. An older woman in sweatpants is drinking from a bottle wrapped in a paper bag.
41. A younger man wearing sunglasses with short hair is helping an old lady cross the road.
42. A bald man with a white backpack and a long beard is carrying a pink electric guitar.
43. A chubby woman dressed all in black is riding a kid scooter.
44. A man with long white hair, wearing a safety vest, is holding a bundle of blue tarp and searching for something on the ground.
45. A man, with a white hat and big brown boots, is carrying a hiking backpack.
46. A woman with her hair disheveled passes by, wearing a long baggy rock band t-shirt and flip flops.
47. A woman with short hair dyed blue wearing a basketball jersey.
48. A man, wearing a bowler hat and a pink-patterned trench coat, walks by swinging his arm wildly.
49. A woman, with a blonde ponytail, dressed all in black is digging through her purse.
50. A very tall man, towering above everyone else, passes by concealing something moving in his pocket.
51. A young man, with feminine features, strolls by with a bounce in his steps.
52. A man, with a mop-top haircut, is wearing thin-rimmed glasses on his long nose.
53. A woman with a large afro in a blue patterned dress and three-inch heels strides pass with a purpose.
54. A woman, wearing a black hoodie and sunglasses, is holding a large feather like a glass of wine.
55. A man with bandages unwrapping around his legs is trying to gather the loose ends.
56. An androgynous man runs by with blond hair in a bun, wearing a red hoodie t-shirt and spandex pants.
57. An old woman in a red silk coat stands at the corner with her arms behind her back staring across the street.
58. A fit woman with a ponytail, wearing a green sports bra, is pushing a baby carriage as she jogs.
59. A very large man, shaped like a balloon, trudge by wearing a big blue shirt with Al Pacino’s Scarface on it.
60. A tall woman, with long hair down to her butt, is wearing a black romper, holding a small purse casually at her side, and walking with great posture.
61. A man, with many piercings on his face and hair dyed with multiple colors, passes by with a cigarette in his mouth.
62. A shirtless man, with short messy hair, is holding a clear plastic cup with nothing in it.
63. A man with a backward cap and a goatee, wearing a red plaid shirt, is carrying a flagger stop sign.
64. A woman with dreadlocks is pushing a very large double bass case on wheels across the street.
65. A tanned man with long curly hair, wearing a tie-dye shirt, is skateboarding as fast as possible down the street.
66. A girl with a fairy haircut and eyebrows that spike up at the end walks past with a cup of coffee.
67. A balding man with comb-over hair is wearing a long shirt — way too long for him — and walking as though there is a rock in his shoe.
68. An old lady wearing a blue fishing hat is pulling a two-wheel shopping dolly that has flower patterns on it.
69. A woman wearing only an orange bikini and running shoes is filming herself on her phone as she walks by, not acknowledging the glances she’s receiving.
70. A teenage boy with long hair, wearing a black tank top, is lighting a cigarette that won’t spark.
71. A woman in a pink dress is riding a motorized wheelchair, speeding by and almost hitting some pedestrians.
72. A tanned thin wrinkly man is holding a garbage bag open and telling people to look inside.
73. A well-built man with a white beard is wearing a beanie and a whole assortment of necklaces from animal teeth to colorful gems.
74. A man in an ill-fitting tuxedo is pacing nervously, pulling out a flask from his inside coat pocket and taking a swig.
75. A grumpy old man sits on a bench, wearing a brown coat, with his arms are crossed as he watches people stroll him by.
76. A small short-haired woman is wearing multiple layers of clothing, topping it off with a vest, and following a couple asking for change.
77. A woman with silky blonde hair is adjusting a big gray backpack that clung heavily on her shoulders.
78. A man, with a salt-and-pepper five o’clock shadow, is wearing a green hoodie with the zippers unzipped, revealing that he is not wearing a shirt underneath.
79. A man in a fresh new blue t-shirt is walking around with a snake wrapped around his shoulder.
80. A little girl in a white dress is eating chocolate ice cream and walking a dog the same size as her.
81. An older man is running down the sidewalk, pushing a two-wheel hand truck with a tower of boxes upon it.
82. A small man — but very muscular — with a lot of tattoos is constantly looking over his shoulders.
83. An athletic woman is rollerblading while wearing a long pink dress.
84. A man with thick eyebrows and a thicker mustache is carrying a cardboard box filled with antique.
85. A woman, wearing a red shirt with the number 69 on her back, is laughing loudly as she walks by.
86. An older lady carrying a shopping bag in one hand and a rolled-up yoga mat in the other is in no rush to get where she’s going.
87. A glamorous woman in a beautiful gown has her make-up ruined from tears still on her face.
88. An athletic young man wearing a white t-shirt decided that here is the best place for him to do some pushups.
89. A woman in a plaid shirt and ripped shorts is carrying a six-pack of beer and a brown paper bag.
90. An elderly woman, with slicked-back greasy hair, is wearing aviator glasses and a leather jacket.
91. A strapping man in a larger yellow shirt is pushing a double baby stroller that has no babies in it.
92. A man wearing a motorcycle helmet on his head is shuffling through a folder full of documents.
93. A college student is typing on her laptop as she walks down the street, carrying a backpack with the zippers open.
94. A man with a long ponytail is smoking a pipe and curling his curly mustache.
95. A woman with a lot of plastic surgery is wearing a shiny dress that is reflecting the lights off the sun.
96. A young girl with pig-tails is riding a unicycle down the street and waving to people as she passes by.
97. A lady in t-shirt, shorts, and high-heels falls to the ground, her glasses sliding away from her, her elbows are scraped.
98. A man, with a handlebar mustache and a mullet, dressed in a denim jacket, is carrying a medicine ball in both arms.
99. A 20-something-year old is holding a case of beer, but the box is broken, so he’s having an awkward time carrying it.
100. A man wearing a facemask and sunglasses is standing at the intersection waiting for the street lights to change.

I hope it can inspire you and that you will create something wonderful from it. Please feel free to share what you’ve written in the comments below, I’d love to read it. And if you are up for the challenge, you can try to write all 100, one for each day.

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What Does Trying Too Hard Mean?

Heather and Patrick were having coffee together and a conversation about a novel came up. American Gods by Neil Gaiman. “I love that book,” said Patrick, to which Heather responded with a disgusted grunt. “I didn’t like it.” 

Patrick was a little shocked because they often enjoyed the same type of entertainment. “Why?” he asked. 

Heather thought about it for a moment, recalling some aspects of the story and said, “Hmm… I felt that Gaiman was just trying too hard.” 

Patrick was not satisfied with that answer, “Shouldn’t a writer always try hard?” 

“Oh,” said Heather, with no desire to continue the conversation. “I just didn’t like it…” 

Patrick, not wanting to spoil their afternoon together decided to drop it. But the thought lingered in his mind. “Trying too hard.” Shouldn’t that be a good thing?” 

While Heather failed to articulate elements of the story that she disliked, “trying too hard” is a common expression to describe a piece of writing — or a creative work of any kind — that didn’t register with the audience. This is especially noticeable when the work is something as big and bold as Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. 

Nobody would deny that it was a piece of ambitious work. It’s a story about life and death, mythology and beliefs, new America, and sacred lands. It has a massive cast of characters and a climax as epic as any other notable fantasy. But surely that cannot be a bad thing. Can it? 

A writer gives off the impression of trying too hard when the effort put into the work is not only visible but excessive. Although this can all be a matter of personal taste, Heather must have found the references to mythology and religion, the metaphor of media and technology as deities, and the usage of real-world geography and imagined realms too much. Each one of these unique elements added another flavour to the story that she simply wasn’t familiar with. It felt too experimental and it failed to capture her imagination.

When a reader finds that a writer is trying too hard to impress her, it can be off-putting. Unnecessarily large words, similes that miss the mark, flowery language with no purpose, humour that lacks the wit, and cliffhangers at any opportunity given are all elements that leave the reader feeling like the writer was trying too hard. 

Of course, Patrick didn’t think Neil Gaiman was trying too hard. He found American Gods to be an entertaining and thought-provoking novel. Over 450 pages of thrilling action and adventure. He found the story to be a fresh take on a familiar genre and proved to him that Gaiman was a writer that continually pushed the limits of his own creative and literary capabilities. 

One could argue that Gaiman wouldn’t have written something that impacted Patrick so significantly if he didn’t write something that Heather would consider trying too hard. Because one can only believe that Gaiman was trying hard. All writers should try hard. They should all try as hard as they can. They should push their imagination and their writing to the full limit of their potential. 

As far as “Trying too hard” goes, it’s not a completely negative critique. There are some merits to be given. An A for effort. When someone tells you that you’re trying too hard, know that you are heading in the right direction — perhaps a bit of refining is needed — but don’t let what one reader says hold you back from your next epic story. Try hard and keep improving.

If you enjoyed this article, please check out the What Is… of Writing series:

 

30 Day Writing Challenge: Write the Same Thing Everyday

In order for artists to improve, they need to draw the same thing over and over again. Each time they draw something, they see something different. Something they didn’t notice previously. Each time they draw, they dig a bit deeper. They see angles, colors, textures in a different way. They challenge themselves to be more refined or more creative, bringing something new to the original idea. 

We can apply this creative technique to writing as well. For the next 30 days, I want to challenge you to write about the same thing every day. It can be your chair, your room, your dog, your family, your cup of coffee, anything, but whatever you pick, stick with it for 30 days. Each day, write one new sentence, as long or as short as you want. 

For me, I chose to write about the intersection in front of my apartment. It’s a busy place with a lot going on. It’s noisy. It’s dirty. And each day, I see something a little different in it. Or at least try to. 

Some days I write something really good, other days, I just try to get a sentence down. The goal of this exercise is to practice observing deeper, seeing details that aren’t immediately visible. It also helps you develop a habit. For many people, writing every day can be a challenge, especially if they have a lofty goal, like 2 pages a day or a 1,000 words. This challenge simplifies the process: 1 sentence. Easy. Write about the same thing every day. No need to wait for inspiration, it’s there. Write about that! 

What makes this a challenge is that you need to overcome your own perceived limitations. By day 5, you’ll run out of surface-level stuff to write about. That’s when your creativity really kicks in. That’s when you hold on and discover how your mind actually works. You may feel bored around day 10 or 15, but keep going, because your best sentence may come at day 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, or 30. You may need to get through the shit first. And that’s the last thing about this challenge. It allows you to practice perseverance. And perseverance is essential

I encourage you to start after you finish reading this article. There is no time better than the present. Good luck! I look forward to reading your work. 

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