Getting to Know Your Characters
Updated: Mar 16, 2019
I want to talk about one of the most basic and most important parts of writing: getting to know your characters. I know this sort of thing has been covered extensively by many other writers, but I want to add my two cents to the discussion.
See, for me, this has never been particularly easy, though I feel like it is one of the easier parts of writing for a lot of people. Not that anything in writing is easy, but I always see writers who are completely enamored with these new characters they've created, gushing over them and going on and on about how much they love all the different facets of their personalities. Meanwhile, I'm standing here in the corner with a cardboard cutout of something that vaguely resembles a real person, wondering how on Earth I'm going to turn them into someone believable. Don't get me wrong - I love my characters, too...once I actually figure out who they are. And that can take a really long time. Fortunately, I've learned how to work around this over the years. If you're one of those people for whom character creation doesn't come naturally, fear not! You're not alone, and hopefully something here will help you (even if it's only in providing encouragement and moral support).
We've all seen them. We've probably all filled out a dozen...a hundred...a thousand. Google "character creation sheet" and you'll get all kinds of variations, but they follow the same format: a list of traits to fill in and questions to answer about your character. These things are great and they can be tremendously helpful, especially in the early stages when you're just starting to get to know your characters. I'm not going to tell you to stop filling them out entirely. What I am going to tell you is to be aware that character sheets have limitations, and there comes a point where they simply aren't useful anymore. At some point, you just have to put on your big-person pants and start writing (which I will talk more about in a minute).
If you're going to use a character sheet, try to pick one that has quality questions that will really tell you something about the character. I love the ones that include questions about the character's relationship with other important characters in the story. You can also make up your own questions, perhaps ones that ask about your character's place in the world or how they feel about certain events in the story or within the setting. Don't spend time agonizing over questions like, "What's this character's favorite color?" or "What is your character's earliest memory?" Nobody cares, and 99 times out of 100, it's not important. I mean, if we pretend that I'm a character in a story, how much does the fact that my least favorite color is purple affect who I am as a person? Not enough to matter, and not enough to really impact the conflicts I've encountered in my life (though there is something to be said about the aggravation that comes when I go to the store to buy a new notebook and they only have purple ones, but that's probably not going to be a major plot point).
I can already see a few people shaking their heads in quiet disagreement, and that's okay. I know plenty of people who argue that it's super important to know every single detail you can about your character. But I think the favorite color, favorite food, etc. thing is taking it to the extreme just a little. There are far better things you can be spending your time on. So go ahead and use character sheets, if you like. Just make sure you aren't letting them become a crutch.
The Value of Roleplay and Other Writing Exercises
One of the best things you can do to get to know your character is just to write them. This seems obvious, but sometimes it's easy to get so caught up in the details of character creation that we forget this part. You can write the story your character belongs in, of course, but maybe you're not ready for that yet. So start with something else. Try coming up with a scenario and then stick your character in the middle of it. Write about what they'd think, how they'd act, or what they'd say. Turn it into a short story, if you like. The setting or situation doesn't even have to be related to the actual story the character belongs in. You could stick your medieval fantasy novel's antagonist in a modern doctor's office. How would they react to long wait-times, or to the little kid in the corner who just will not stop screaming? What would they say to the apathetic doctor who tells them they simply need to take it easy and pop a few Tylenol? This sort of thing can tell you a lot about a character. And the best part is that it does so in a specific, detailed way that you can actually see - something you might not get from a basic character sheet.
Similarly, roleplaying can be a surprisingly helpful way to learn about your characters. It's also a ton of fun (though it can be distracting from actually writing your story if you're not careful). Several years ago, I was part of a small online writer's group which eventually resulted in a bunch of roleplaying with characters from all of our different stories. At first, we just stuck our characters in a room together and let them interact. Eventually, we devised elaborate Hunger Games/Battle Royale scenarios and let them fight to the death. Madness ensued, of course, but it was delightfully entertaining, and I can honestly say that I learned a lot about some of my characters through it all. Were they they type of person who would help someone weaker, or were they just out to kill everyone else? How resourceful were they? Did they panic, or did were they able to keep their head in crisis situations? What would they do if one of their friends was in trouble? These can all be valuable things to know when you start writing your story. Best of all, it's experimental, so if your character says something that doesn't seem to fit, or if you have them act in a way that seems uncharacteristic, you're able to see that. Understanding who your character isn't can sometimes be just as important as understanding who they are.
Put the Character in the Story, Dang it!
Remember what I said earlier about putting on your big-person pants? Well, this is where that comes in. At some point, you have to stop overthinking things and throw your characters in the story. This has been one of the hardest lessons for me to learn, but also one of the most rewarding. "But I barely know my characters!" you say. Guess what? That's kind of the whole point. You don't know them, and you're not going to - not really - until you start writing them. Characters need a story.
In 2010, I started writing my dystopian novel Secrets of PEACE. I didn't know much about the main character except that she was an assassin. I came up with a few vague personality traits, some backstory, and a sketch of how I imagined she'd look. It wasn't much to go on, but I also had a pretty detailed plot outline, so I just started writing. All through that first draft, I was painfully aware of how flat Zira and the other major characters were. I kept plugging away, determined to finish a draft before I let my inner editor take over. By the end of that draft, something had changed. I knew her. I knew how she talked, how she moved, what she cared about, how her mind worked. I knew her biggest fears and her greatest weaknesses, and I saw things about her that she didn't even see in herself. I was able to go back to the beginning and rewrite her character in a way that felt much more believable and real. After the second draft, I knew her even better. The same was true for all the other characters as well.
My point is that sometimes the best way to get to know your character is to stick them in the story and let them work through the conflicts you've created for them. Just write. It doesn't have to be perfect the first time. That's one of the best things about a first draft; it's not about trying to write something flawless. It's about discovery. Last year, I decided to set Zira's story aside for a while and write something else. I was terrified. I'd spent the past four years with Zira and everyone else in her story, and I wasn't sure that I could write about different characters - people I barely knew. Then I remembered that that was how I'd felt about her at first, too. I stopped worrying about it and I started writing. It has been so liberating to just allow myself to write, to discover, to learn about my characters as I go on their journey with them. I'm almost done with the first draft, and I'm already well-aware of some of the issues with the characters. There are places where they say and do things that are completely ridiculous. There are things that have changed over the course of the story that completely derail things that made sense early on. The main protagonist is so dull and lifeless in the first 1/3 of the story that I know I'm going to have to do a complete overhaul where he's concerned. But I'm learning. I'm figuring out who these people are, and I'm doing it much faster than I ever could just by filling out a questionnaire about each of them. And I am loving every moment of it.
So go ahead. Fill out those character sheets and play around with some writing exercises to help you figure out who these people in your story are. And then, just tell the story. It's okay to start writing before you really know them. You don't have to get them 100% right the first time, after all.