How to Get to Know Your Characters Better

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“You make it look like work. I need to see the movement, not the effort behind it.”
Jonathan in Center Stage

Okay, Jonathan was talking about ballet but I have a theory that almost all of these types of statements can be applied to writing. And just like ballet, a lot of work goes on behind the scenes in writing that isn’t – or shouldn’t be – visible in the final published book.

I have no academic research to back this up but I suspect for a book that ends up around the 100,000 word mark, a writer would actually write closer to 200,000 words and discard the other 100,000 words as part of the editing process. Not all of those discarded words would be prose, of course. A lot of it would be research.

The problem with research is that no amount of it will help a writer to get to know their characters better. Because characters, like people, are more than just a collection of facts. They are human. They are unpredictable. And how they will react in any given situation is difficult to know. In fact, the only way a writer will know is to put them in that situation and see what happens.

The situations that might teach writers something about their characters may not necessarily make the final cut of their books. But writing them anyway can be a great way to get to know their characters better. So here are a few options for doing just that.

Write a Diary Entry from Your Character’s Perspective
If there’s anywhere a character can be themselves without the fear of embarrassment or scorn, it’s in their own private diary. Just because it’s a diary, though, doesn’t mean it’s going to be all flowery language and feelings. Someone with an eating disorder might use their diary to note in detail everything they eat and analyse how it relates to what else is going on in their life. A serial killer might use a code to relive each murder committed, perhaps pretending victims were first dates so as not to incriminate himself should anyone else read it.

Of course, there are plenty of characters who wouldn’t be caught dead keeping a diary so forcing them to write one might not make a lot of sense. They might call it something else instead. A journal. A notebook. A retired cop might keep scraps of information as he investigates a cold case, the one that he could never get out of his mind and always wanted to go back to when he finally had the time. Some of his personal feelings about the case might find their way into the margins.

Or imagine a character in their thirties, forties or fifties finding a diary they wrote in their teenage years and reading their own words all that time later and comparing who they are now to who they were then.

And once you’ve written these diary entries, you review what you’ve learned and infuse your characters’ actions with motivations that align with how they think about things when they know no one is watching them.

Write a Session with a Therapist from Your Character’s Perspective
Writing a session with a therapist is a lot like writing a diary entry except that a therapist is likely to ask and require an answer to questions that the character really doesn’t want to get into in. So in addition to learning more about how a character feels, you also learn about how that character reacts under pressure. Do they fold and give in? Do they push back? Do they cry? Do they yell? Do they storm out?

If you’re really lucky and if you’re any good as a de facto therapist, your character might even have a breakthrough, realising something about themselves that they never would have without that therapy. Of course, they can’t have that realisation in the story without someone helping them. It doesn’t have to be a therapist. It might just be the circumstances and the right check out chick in the right place at the right time.

Interview Your Character
If a journalist or a police officer started asking your character questions, would they be inclined to answer them truthfully, would they hold something back or would they lie outright? Would their inclination change if what they were being asked about wouldn’t get them or anyone they care about in any trouble? Do they trust journalists and the police or are they cynical and suspicious of anyone in those professions?

If you interview your character, you’ll find out.

Start a Character Blog
Who doesn’t have a blog these days? So why wouldn’t your character have one? You don’t have to actually publish it. It’s more about considering what your character might enjoy so much that he or she wants to blog about it and maybe even writing a post or two. I blog about writing and editing. My sister blogs about sewing. My police chief in a small town character might want to blog about community safety. But given how busy he is being the police chief in a small town, he might limit himself to a Facebook page instead. Or maybe he’s a closet Royal Doulton fan and his blog is how he relaxes in the evening.

There are actually a number of real character blogs including:

*Corporate or official character blogs – from companies that have characters representing them for marketing purposes and famous fictional characters beloved by viewers or readers (depending on where the character came from in the first place) continuing their stories beyond where they began
*Fan fiction or unofficial character blogs – some characters are so beloved that fans can’t wait for an official blog or sequel so they create them on their own. EL James, the multimillion selling author of the Fifty Shades series, developed Ana and Christian out of Bella and Edward erotic fan fiction, so you never know where these things can end up.
*Fantasy or completely new character blogs – these don’t rely on any previous fame but create brand new characters, just for the fun of it. Or maybe to try out a new character before committing to an entire book or film or TV series about them.

Some of these options might seem like a whole lot of extra work, especially if they won’t ever be seen by readers. But there’s nothing that says background work can’t be published. Readers love little extras that give insight into the writing process and additional information about the characters they’ve fallen in love with. But above all, if it means a deeper insight into their motivations and results in a better plot, then surely that extra work has be worth it.

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