Getting to know your Characters

Characters.  A necessity for every story.  When I starting writing, I tried to learn about the characters as I went along.  I also thought I was more of a plotter – so the plot was where I started.  That all changed as I grew as a writer and figured out that I was really more of a pantser.   At that point, the details of my protagonist’s and antagonist’s lives and personalities became much more important to know earlier. 

        Like most authors, I strive for an engaging and sympathetic protagonist.  One my readers will identify with and care about.  I also want an intriguing antagonist.  If I do a good job, its almost that guilty pleasure of watching them and wondering what he/she will do next but not being able to accept his/her end goal.

           In the early stages of a new story idea, I usually have some idea of one of the characters.  That’s where I start.  Sometimes with a name.  Sometimes with just the gender.  Then I build from there.

          There are lots of books on building or creating characters.  I’ve read some parts of a few but it seems like I always end up starting with a list of questions.   There are different approaches for this.  Some writers interview their characters while others like to work with a worksheet that fills in the background.  I tend to work with both.  I find that starting out, I may not know all the answers but a worksheet helps me identify what I already know about a character.  I then interview my character to find the other answers.Interview_Questions_and_Answers

         But I don’t stop there.  If I am having trouble with a scene or with a character, I’ll stop and think up a few questions and interview that character.  Sometimes I get the answers and sometimes one answer opens up a whole scene that I was working on.   I use the process throughout the story/novel. 

         Martina Boone has a character worksheet on the web that I have found is a very helpful.  It has all the background aspects of family as well as physical attributes.  But it goes further, in having the writer list positive and negative aspects, memories, favorite foods, mannerisms,  favorite savings and motivators.

         100 Character Development Questions for Writers by Laura Cushing (the questions were written by Rich Taylor)  has some fun questions that I wouldn’t have considered such as “How ticklish are you?” and “What TV shows do you watch?”

       Some of those types of questions won’t help in my story but certainly provide some insights into my characters.   I pick and choose from a lot of different sources.  If I’m stuck on something, it’s sometimes helpful to have an unrelated question to start with.    

  Aside from the questions, I also use The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits  by Linda N. Edelstein, Ph.D. and The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman & Becca Publisi, as well as The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease.  Those books help me with defining how my character will react to certain situations and how to reveal some reactions by physical movement.

       Once I have the basics, I try to find a picture of what my character might look like. I use art, cards, and magazines for sources on those.  I’m more of a visual person so I find that being able to look at my character helps me in writing. And although its a bit strange, interviewing a picture is slightly easier than interviewing in my head.

      That’s my process .  What about you?  Favorite interview questions?  What’s your process to learning more about your characters? 

4 thoughts on “Getting to know your Characters

  1. The Snowflake method is one that I use to help develop character. It is a process of developing the character with background history and anecdotes. I do find it very helpful.

  2. Thanks for the links!
    Sometimes a specific physical characteristic such as ‘white-blonde hair cropped in a pixie cut’ will be all I need to know about the physical appearance of the character and my understanding of them is limited to their inner domain. I don’t usually visualize eye color, hair color, height, weight, etc, and think I might find it distracting, but I’ll definitely try it some time.
    I use a couple of different techniques to learn about my characters. One technique is to describe what is in their purse/on their grocery list/on their dressing table, in the glove box of their car or in their safety deposit box. Another technique is interviewing them which sometimes works quite well especially when I ask open-ended questions, like ‘tell me about yourself’ and allow them to answer without second-guessing their responses.

    • I love the idea of what’s in your purse or on your grocery list – that definitely would show something about a character. I’ll have to add that to my list of items. And I agree on the open ended questions – those can be really helpful. Thanks.

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