7 Ways to Get to Know Your Character

Iceland-160976-hNo matter what you're writing, memoir, fiction or even web copy, character is everything. You've got to know your character through and through in order to write successfully. This was brought home to me all over again last week, when I spent the week with my daughter and her baby and learned, first hand, what their life is like together.

It is worth it to take the time to learn more about your character.  Otherwise, you'll get midway through your novel and realize you don't understand your character's backstory and hence, her motivation.  Or you'll be rolling along on your memoir and realize there are holes where you don't know some crucial bit of a character's timeline.

So here are some of my favorite ways to advance your understanding of your characters.

1. The Basics.  You gotta know this stuff.  You know, height, weight, hair color, eyes, age, astrological sign, etc.  The absolute bedrock basics you'd know about, say, someone in your family.  Write this stuff down and keep it somewhere you can access it so your character's eyes don't change color from page 5 to page 128, when her new love is gazing into them.

2.  Timeline.  What are the big events in your character's life, and the dates of them?  Things like birth, graduation, marriage, birth of babies, and so on.  You can also do an emotional timeline of important events and put the two together.

3. Ordinary Day.  I'm big on this one, because it is deceptively helpful.  From the time your character gets up in the morning, what does he do?  Start with getting out of bed and proceed in as much detail as you can muster.  You'll learn all kinds of interesting things, because how we spend our days is how we spend our lives, as Annie Dillard says.

4.  The Interview.  Ask your character questions about her life, the way you would if you were a journalist interviewing her for an article.  This can be especially helpful to jar loose secrets, conflict, and motivation.

5.  The Dream.  Author Robert J. Ray recommends this exercise, and its a doozy.  Doesn't seem like it would be worth much, but it can help a lot.  Start by writing, in the dream…..and then keep repeating the words in the dream as you write.  It gets you into a meditative state that will reveal depths.

6.  Look at Yourself.  You can find a lot of inspiration for your characters in how you approach life.  Write a journal entry and then rewrite it in the viewpoint of your character.  See how things change or remain the same. 

7.  Examine Setting.  Landscape shapes who we are.   A character who lives in rural South Dakota has different ideas and opinions than one who lives in Manhattan.  And yet, as Janet Burroway says, setting is so much more than just landscape.  It is the house you live in, the books on your coffee table, the mug you drink coffee from.  All of these things influence our character.

So there you have it, 7 ways to look at character.  Please comment and tell me your favorite ways to uncover the secrets of your characters!

Create a successful, inspired writing life:  Take the time to get to know each of your main characters as intimately as possible.  It will save you time in the long run!


Photo by cogdogblog.

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10 Responses to 7 Ways to Get to Know Your Character

  1. J.D. 05/10/2012 at 04:58 #

    This is great stuff, Charlotte. I was reading about memoir, a craft I have no interest in, and the author wrote: The reader will have no interest in your childhood unless there is something they share with you (I screwed that up but anyway). In fiction, you can give your plot more twists than the road up Pike’s Peak and the reader will have no interest if the characters are featureless. People don’t read James Bond to learn the latest plot to blow up the world and they don’t read The Old Man and the Sea to find out what it is like to catch a big fish.

  2. Zan Marie 05/10/2012 at 05:45 #

    I love getting to know my characters. Two of my favorite methods come form the fertile mind of Ron Wodaski whom I met at Compuserve Books & Writers. One is to take the alphabet and quickly go through the letters letting the character dictate a word for each letter and why it’s important. An example from my current work with one character–Arizona: home that wasn’t…a home or a place he’d not willing go back to–ever. The old man could die for all he cared. And another is a list of 30 questions that start with the day to day things and transition into what causes them pain, etc.
    These are intense, but you’ll know your people when your done. ; )

  3. Charlotte Dixon 05/10/2012 at 07:23 #

    You're so right, J.D.  I do believe that readers are interested in character, period.  They may seek a fast-paced plot, but its because they want to see how the hero (or heroine) handles events, not for the sake of action alone.  And those who read the slower-paced literary fiction want to get inside the character's head.  You can never do too much character work.

  4. Charlotte Dixon 05/10/2012 at 07:24 #

    Oooh, good additions, Zan Marie!  I love the A to Z one, that's really original.  And the questions are great, too.  I might adapt that to the book overall as well.

  5. Carole Jane Treggett 05/10/2012 at 07:58 #

    Charlotte, really great post! Thankful to your readers for sharing the great ideas they’ve found as well :)

    Your #6 sounds like a great opportunity to really get into the mind, heart and soul of my characters (and any given character’s muse…err…is that a separate muse from mine? Things that make me go ‘hmm’ lol).

    I’m definitely going to try this.I latch onto any excuse to buy yet another journal notebook to add to my growing collection 😀

  6. Jenni Gainsborough 05/10/2012 at 08:25 #

    Great ideas! Your vision boad suggestions helped to jump start my characters — these suggestions will continue the process and help me get to know them better. Thanks.

  7. Charlotte Dixon 05/10/2012 at 09:39 #

    I'm with you, Carole Jane, any excuse to buy a new journal is fine with me!  Love your pondering about muses, too.  Thanks, as always, for reading!

  8. Charlotte Dixon 05/10/2012 at 09:41 #

    Ahhh, thanks, Jenni!  I love that my suggestions are helping you with your novel.  I'm quite excited about your work!

  9. Courtney Hicks 10/07/2012 at 16:10 #

    these all sound good, but I don’t get #5. what is “the dream”?

  10. Charlotte Dixon 10/07/2012 at 16:48 #

    Hi Courtney, The dream is a character’s dream. So you’re in their head, writing down the dream they had. Make sense? It sounds a bit woo-woo, but it can reveal all kinds of things. Thanks for asking a question!

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