Ten ways to get to know your character

I’ve just found out that the Beverley Guardian website has disappeared (as has the Beverley Guardian newspaper), which means my columns on creative writing have also gone, so I’m reproducing them here.

10 ways to get to know your character

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Put your character on the couch and ask them questions.

As a mentor for the RNA new writer’s scheme, I critique a lot of manuscripts. Of these the hardest ones to fix are the ones where the writer hasn’t properly got under the skin of their character. You don’t need to LIKE you characters, but you do need to know them. What makes them tick? What is it about them that sets them apart from the others?

A sure way of telling whether your characters are two dimensional is if you’ve told the reader what they did, but haven’t given them any idea of why they did it. Realistic people have reasons for doing things and emotional reactions to what happens.  Make sure you know what your character is thinking.

Different people have different ways of getting to know their characters. I’ve suggested some common ones below. I’m not suggesting you do all of these – just try one of two until you find what works for you.

  1. Complete a character profile. You can find templates from these on the internet. You start off with their name, their date of birth, their religious beliefs etc and keep going until you get to the good stuff like ‘what are they most afraid of?’ or ‘if your character could only save on thing/person from a fire, what/who would that be’.
  2. Visualise them. This is fun to do. Close your eyes. Do not fall asleep. Picture your character. Got it? Now put them in a street, walking towards their front door. Open the front door. What do they see? Spend a few minutes watching them and then write down a description of what they saw.
  3. Interview your character. This is a variation of the first suggestion, but has the advantage of letting you hear the character speak. Best to not do this out loud, unless you have a very understanding family. Just saying.
  4. Make a list of what they carry. No, seriously. Take a look in their pockets, their briefcase, their hand bag. What’s in there? WHY is it in there?
  5. Write yourself into their heads. This is my preferred method. I start with only a vague idea of what the character is like – I don’t mean what the character looks like, I don’t worry about this too much, eye colour, hair colour, age and anything relevant to the plot is enough, the reader can (and will) flesh out the rest for themselves. I often have to write several scenes with my main characters walking around doing things and talking to people before I get a real feel for what they are like. Then, at some point, the magic happens and you can hear them in your mind. They have a genuine voice and a way of speaking that it unique to them. Once you reach this point, you’re good to go.
  6. Work out their character arc. I could write a whole column about character arcs (in fact, I probably will).  Your main character should have changed in some way by the end of the story. Use this to get to know your character. Is your hero a scarecrow who considers himself stupid, but after coming up with a few clever ways to help save his friend, actually realises that he has a brain after all? Use this arc to work out what he would be like at the start (a bit dopey and unwilling to express an opinion?). Think about how he might show his changed state by the end (confident, perhaps?).
  7. Use horoscopes. Do you know your character’s star sign (if you don’t, make it up)? How would a Scorpio respond to losing their job? Or to finding a wallet full of money? What would happen if they met a Libra?
  8. Work out their backstory first. If a little girl lost her mother and her father remarried immediately – how would she feel? What fears and resentments would she harbour when she grew up? How would that affect her interactions with people outside her family?
  9. Ask why they have the traits they have. Why does your hero hate lawyers? Why is your heroine a compulsive gambler? What made them the way they are?
  10. Okay, I’ll have to whisper this one. Gather round. Shh. Steal a character. Don’t lift it wholesale, just take a part of them and then adapt. Bridget Jones is really Lizzie Bennet in disguise. Christian in 50 shades of Grey is really Edward from Twilight without the fangs. Take your vision of a favourite character, then remove bits and embellish other bits until they become someone new. I hesitate to suggest using real people in fiction because it’s inevitably messy. That’s not to say that you can’t take a single character trait from someone real and give it to one of your characters. Once you’ve assimilated that trait into the character, the original source should be unrecognisable.

Writers often talk about their characters ‘taking over’. This is when you think the characters should be doing something, but it doesn’t feel right. You write the scene, rewrite it and still something jars. Then you give up and let the characters do their own thing, watch what they do and write it down. When this happens, it’s the best feeling in the world.

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