Monday, July 27, 2015

5 tips for getting to know your characters

Characters are essential to every good book, and the stories that really stay with you are the ones with
A post by Mary Fan
complex and well-developed casts. The more a reader cares about a character, the more eager they'll be to find out what happens to him/her. But creating characters that spring off the page and take on lives of their own isn't easy, especially when you have a lot of them (and you don't want to neglect the minor ones). Well, as the famous line goes, you can't really know someone until you crawl into their skin and walk around in it (paraphrasing here). That goes for fictional characters too.

Here are five tips to help you get to know your characters.
1. Ask them about their childhoods 

Nothing comes from nothing, and one good way to get to know your character is to figure out what made her the way she is. A person's childhood is instrumental in shaping one's personality, and whether it's a huge event (like the death of a parent) or a little nudge (such as a teacher's words of wisdom), all these factor act as hammers and chisels that carve a human being out of a previously shapeless block of life.

So for each of your characters, try scribbling a few words about their early lives as an exercise. Don't worry about getting too in-depth or detailed (unless you want to!). Just jot down a few notes, like "Devin Colt was one of those kids who was plenty smart but never did his homework, and even fancy private school teachers couldn't turn that around." You might learn something new about them!  

2. Picture what their homes look like

A person's home, whether it's a house, apartment, or pirate ship, is a reflection of who they are. An ambitious, high-achieving Ivy League graduate might have a neat, well-designed apartment even if they're still in the "penniless assistant" part of their careers, whereas a free-to-be-you-and-me artist might have clutter in every corner, despite having been born to hedge fund managers and having plenty of money for a housekeeper.

Jane says her favorite
make-up is eyeliner
Even if it's never a setting in your book, it's helpful to picture what your character's dwelling looks like (for instance, "Riley Winkelpleck spends his life on the computer and barely notices the rest of his apartment exists, so he's got sparse furnishings and candy wrappers all over the floor."). It'll give you further insight into who they are.

3. List a few of their favorite things

What kind of music does your character listen to? What's her favorite book/movie/holodrama/virtu-game? What's her favorite color? What kind of outfits does she favor? Does she like animals, and if so, what kind? These are all pieces of your character's unique personality, and it taking a moment to answer these questions from her perspective is a great way to walk around in her skin. You don't have to mention them all in your final novel (in fact, you probably shouldn't), but once you have the answers, little pieces here and there will trickle in and give your character added dimension. 

4. Imagine the in-between moments

Every book has time jumps. Most go unnoticed because they're little in-between moments that you wouldn't want to read about anyway (for instance, your character's trip to the grocery store... unless she runs into an axe murderer there or something, no one cares about that). And sometimes, as a writer, you'll need to skip over parts that are boring in order to keep up your pacing, even if they're significant enough to get mentioned later (for instance, no one wants to read the snooze-fest of details about how Agent Adesina made her way back to the secret base after the space battle - all that matters is that she made it).

But imagining what happens during those in-between moments, which can also be considered preemptively deleted scenes, can tell you something new about your character (Adesina was upset about losing a team member in the battle and was forced to re-think her methods). Though these are things that would bog down your pacing if you included them in your book, they're good for you as a writer to know about.

5. Psycho-analyze them

You don't need an official psychology degree to psycho-analyze your characters. The University of Wikipedia will do just fine for getting-to-know-your-character purposes. Pretend you're a pop shrink and ask your characters how they feel, then try to get to the root of why they feel this way. Or try figuring out their personality types based on things like the Myers-Brigg chart (here's the test).

Speaking of which, I may have gotten a little carried away with mine...

Which character from the Jane Colt trilogy are you? Click here for character descriptions :-)


Kimberly G. Giarratano said...

I love the idea of psycho-analyzing your characters. This personality chart is amazing. How did that take you?

Mary Fan said...

Thanks! It took me one evening of extreme procrastinating... Basically taking the MB test as if I were my characters and then seeking stock photos to illustrate it. Did I mention I'm bonkers? :-D

Kimberly G. Giarratano said...

I already knew you were nuts. This just adds evidence to my case file.

Mary Fan said...


Jonathan Schramm said...

Wow, look at that, I'm the Champion. I always knew that I was! Okay, your characters are cool. I definitely have to read your books... *goes to buy at Amazon now*. Seriously, though great suggestions. I definitely have to do this for my characters. Question though, when does the Cosplay start for you? That's usually the first thing I do to get to know my characters-- lol!

Mary Fan said...

Yay! Thank you! And by cosplay - do you mean dressing as my characters? I've been known to do that too... Well, with Jane at least. She wears normal clothes anyway so it's not hard to shop my closet for outfits she'd approve of...

Jonathan Schramm said...

Yep, that's what I mean... It's always good practice for when your movie comes out and you eventually have go to Comicon dressed up as one of your characters...;)

Brenda St John Brown said...

I think the in-between moments is such a good suggestion because you're right...there's not a lot of mundane tasks being done ON the page. But obviously everyone has to do laundry, fill the car up with gas (if they drive), pay the credit card bill. Maybe I should write a book where the ONLY thing the characters do is the mundane tasks? The key would be making it not seem mundane. Or I could go the sparkly unicorn route. :) What do you think?

Carrie Beckort said...

Great suggestions! For my first two novels I actually downloaded floor plans for the homes of my two main characters, making notes of where I wanted changes. It also helped keep me consistent when I talked about them going from one room to the next!

Mary Fan said...

Quite true... Gotta be prepared for these things... :-D

Mary Fan said...

LOL! How about grocery shopping with a sparkly unicorn? I'd read that book!

Mary Fan said...

I did the same thing with my current WIP! Used apartment hunting sites to stalk various places my characters could live then downloaded the floor plans and photos for reference! It was fun... Especially since two of my characters are mega rich New Yorkers :-D

Brianna Lebrecht said...

I'm just reading this, but THANK YOU for posting about this topic! At my last writing group meeting, I was told I need to spend a bit of time getting to know my characters well enough to differentiate between their alternating voices, because they currently sound the same. As I was reading this, I was mentally answering these questions. I think I know my characters pretty well and I'm realizing characterization may not be my flaw. It's figuring out how the characterization shapes the character's voice. Really, thanks! You've inspired me :)

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