Writers: Know Your Characters

     One of the first steps in writing a novel is deciding the amazing people that will carry your story. 
     This decision is much more involved than it may seem.  Characters evolve in different ways for different writers, some are created from scratch through careful planning and some create themselves.  They pop into your head and certain mannerisms or characteristics are already attached.  These are the characters that I love. 
     To me, they make writing the easy part, because once you know your characters as well as you know yourself, you know what they would do and what they wouldn’t do.  They literally scream at you from the page if you try to force them to do something out of character. 
     But how do you get to know them?  What if there is something missing that you haven’t figured out about them?  Well…first you should design your characters if they haven’t come to life quite yet. 
     Things to know other than their physical description are:

  • Demeanor
  • Personality
  • View of the world
  • Background (attributes to all of the above)…We are all fashioned by our experiences to a degree

     The method I use to get to know my characters is writing backstory.  I look at what events have occurred in their lives that have lead them to the moment that the story begins.  I let them tell me what has happened…what their life has been like.  The more detailed you get, the better you will know the character.
     The main characters should of course have the most attention to detail, although, this is a great exercise to go through for supporting characters as well.  Once you’ve figured out what kind of person your main character is, you can delve deeper into things that will create internal conflict and give rise to their reaction to external conflict. The following questions will help…

  1. What is my characters greatest strength?  Greatest flaw?
  2. What does my character fear?
  3. What do they love/hate about the world/life?
  4. What is my characters motivation/goal?  What do they want?
  5. How will that motivation drive them through the plot?
  6. If they do not succeed at meeting their goal, what will they lose?  Is this not a fear?
  7. Do they have secrets?  Something they are trying to hide?
  8. What will be the obstacle that blocks the path to them attaining their goal?

     Everything that happens in a novel is cause and effect.  When a conflict occurs, the characters react.  The conflict causes this reaction which is the effect.  This pattern repeats itself over and over in novels, building and making things worse for the main character, until we finally reach the conclusion. 
     If you know your characters, their reaction will be a no-brainer.  Figuring out what conflict to put them face-to-face with, however, becomes the hard part.  But that’s another post for another day…right now, get to know your characters!

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4 Comments

  1. Oh, Charissa – this is so true and so useful!
    Letting a book go into production with your publishers is like letting your best friends go forever! You feel bereft and lonely. I so loved some of my characters in my new book… and one of them came about exactly as you say: he just popped out fully formed, and I knew him!
    I knew him intimately: what he liked, what made him angry or upset, how he kept his belongings, what was dear to him, and how he saw the world. Ah, we should all have a friend like Bryn Awbrey… even writing his name makes me emotional now. He is one of the most important characters in my book. Not only because he helped solve the mystery, but because he was so authentic and so ALIVE! I hope all my readers think so too.

  2. Hi Clarissa! Thanks for following me on twitter. I'm still trying to figure that site out.

    I just read a book about writing, "Bird by Bird," where the author stresses exactly what you're talking about – getting to know your characters inside and out, and letting them move the story forward. You're right. It's so crucial! Thanks for the reminder. Great post!