Getting to Know Your Characters

I’m asked a lot of questions about characterization. That is (apparently) one of my strong points, but I’m not exactly sure how to explain it.  So, I’ll do my best.

It’s a feeling as simple as knowing whether you want chocolate or blueberry ice-cream. Sometimes, you just know the character. For me, I get to know the characters as I write and then they do what they want to. There is some plotting that I do in the beginning. I sit down with a legal pad or Microsoft One Note and sketch out the basics of the main characters as they are in my head. At this point, the story has already begun to form, though the end may not be clear. Or perhaps the beginning and end are defined, but not the middle, depending on the story.

In any case, I don’t learn every detail of the character in the beginning. They come out as the story develops. Most of the time, I’m writing along and suddenly I realize that I just wrote something about a character, whether it’s the way he speaks, a part of his history, or simply a trait that I never knew was there. The characters reveal themselves to me rather than me forcing a life upon them.

Characters have personalities, too!

Some of them are strong, like Jonas. When I wrote Blood & Sex, Vol. 2, he was almost like another person living with me. I’d be working on something else and start hearing his voice in my head or see images of him in my mind, trying to coax me back to writing his story. He was very demanding, and I loved him for it.

Other characters are harder to get to know. In Night’s Fall, James was dark and mysterious. His personality came out slowly, through edits and scenes that I wrote from his point of view simply to get inside his head. The differences between the two processes were as different as the characters themselves.

Confused yet?

If this explanation has been as clear as mud, that’s because it is to me, too. So, let’s look at the process I generally go through.

  1. First, write down any basic details on the characters in your mind.
    1. What does he look like?
    2. His name?
    3. How old is he?
  2. Focus on one of those characters, think about what he’s like. Is he wild and untamed? Or maybe he’s shy and reclusive? Now go to the net (I prefer YouTube) and start searching out music that fits this guy. What would he listen to? Make a list of five or six songs. That’s your playlist for working with this character.
  3. If anything comes to mind while you’re listening to this playlist, whether it’s a scene, wardrobe, or just his mode of transportation, JOT IT DOWN! He’s showing you things about himself.
  4. Fill in a little more detail. Imagine that you’re interviewing this guy. Write down the details of where you two are at and your initial impressions. Things you might notice are:
    1. Age
    2. Height
    3. Weight
    4. Hair Color
    5. Color of eyes
    6. What he’s wearing, drinking, eating, etc.
    7. Visible scars, tats, etc
  5.  Then, ask him about the following: (keeping in mind that he could be lying, jot down if you think he’s telling you something other than the truth)
    1. Scars, handicaps (physical, mental, emotional)
    2. Sense of humor
    3. Basic nature
    4.  Ambitions
    5.  Philosophy of life
    6.  Hobbies
    7.  Kinds of music, art, reading preferred
    8.  Favorite colors
    9. If it’s a woman, what does she carry in her purse? If it’s a man, what is in his pockets?
    10.  Education
    11. Occupation
    12.  Best friend
    13. Enemies and why
    14.  Parents
    15.  Family background (economic, social, nationality, religious)
    16. Description of home (physical, emotional atmosphere)
  6. By now, my characters are usually tired of answering questions unless they’re attention hogs. So, feel free to just watch them interact with other people in your setting. Note the following on your character notes:
    1. What are this character’s strengths. This could be trouble for them. (i.e. If he’s a financial wizard, maybe a jealous supervisor frames him in an embezzlement scheme.)
    2. What are this character’s weaknesses? The biggest weakness may be what changes in him by the story’s end. (i.e. Is he lonely but scared to be vulnerable? Maybe he has to be to win the heroines heart.)
    3.  Sees themselves as.
    4.  Seen by others as.
    5.  Most important thing to know about the character
    6. If it’s a villain, name something good about him. A hero? Name something negative in his character…a flaw.
  7. You’ve just met your character. Now, if you need a character photo, cruise the net to find one that you can tuck into your notes and refer to when you need to see him clearly.

 

That’s it.

If you don’t have all the answers to these questions, don’t worry. Just start writing your story. Sometimes you just have to watch and see what happens. And don’t be surprised if your character lied to you about something. That’s all a part of who they are.

Now, share your tips with me, if you have any. I’d love to hear how you work on characters.

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3 thoughts on “Getting to Know Your Characters

  1. Great post there, Angela!

    I believe Anne Rice was inspired in a similar way with her Vampire Chronicles. That they were dictated to her by Lestat or somesuch.

    When I had to write stories for certain classes, they story came to me like a little film in my head. I was just describing what I saw.

  2. Thanks, Sierra.
    Anthony, I didn’t realize that about Rice. Interesting. And I see a movie in my head, too. It’s the describing it that’s tricky. I don’t always know how to put it into words.

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