Tuesday, June 9, 2015

9 1/2 Ways to Get to Know Your Characters

Characters are my favorite part of writing. I love figuring out how their minds work, what is most important to them, and what they may be keeping secret. It's almost like getting to know a new friend.
With real people, of course, we use things like dinner parties and trips to the movie theater to get to know each other. As time goes on and we begin trusting each other, we open up and learn about our new friends. With characters, we often don't really have that kind of time, and we don't have the luxury of going to see a movie with them to figure out their likes and dislikes. We have to be creative, and quickly.
So, here is a list of nine and a half ways I know of that can help you on your quest to gain insight into your characters.

1: Character Sheets
I'm sure you've seen plenty of these on the internet. Most of them ask questions about favorite foods and what style they wear their hair in, and I don't tend to find those very useful when you're trying to figure out how your character acts. Honestly, I don't really bother with the internet questionnaires - I prefer to make my own list of questions. That doesn't mean some of them are not useful. From some of them, I've stolen questions to add to my own sheets.
I find that some of the important things to figure out include:
  • birthday
  • goals (both the large plot goals, and smaller ones)/plans for the future
  • adjectives which would describe them (both to those who don't know them too well, and those who know them intimately)
  • backstory - this is probably the most important
  • family relationships - what members of the family are they closest to? How do those relationships impact them in the story?
  • character arc - how does the character change over the course of the story?
  • basic appearance / adjectives to describe their bearing - how their outward appearance makes others perceive them is important. Do they walk around glaring? Limping but grinning? 
You'll figure out what is important for you to know with some experimentation. Your sheets will probably change from project to project as well, or even from character to character. My sheets for Taken are vastly different from the ones I use now for Shadows and Light, and my main characters get pages of their sheets dedicated to answering questions about their character arcs when my minor characters are lucky to get a mention of any sort of arc. You've got to figure out what works best for you, but if you want some inspiration, below is a link to one of my recent character sheets.

2: Character Chats
This is something you need a friend for, but if you're part of any kind of writers' group you should be able to find at least one person willing to do it. The basic idea is that you talk as a character, like you're acting. Someone else will do the same for one of their characters. Messaging systems are usually used, such as Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger, or even just texting. Character chats are useful for seeing new dimensions of your characters, since often the chat forces them to interact with a type of character they don't meet in your own work. Chats also make you think about how your character talks, giving you practice for writing their dialogue.
For more details, check out the post I wrote a while back, "Why Character Chats Are Awesome."

3: Character Interviews
These are usually done through blogs, but there are other ways to do it if you want to. Basically, you notify people (either through your blog, or maybe a Facebook post, or just through texting friends) that you want to interview one of your characters and need questions to ask. You may want to include a short blurb on who the character is or provide some backstory. Then set a date to share the interview, say, a week from when you made the interview public. If you have good friends or loyal blog followers, they'll ask questions you might not think of.
You take the questions and then write up a document. You ask the questions, and your character answers them. It should hopefully come across like a transcript from an interview you see on television. The idea is to practice writing dialogue as your character - capturing their emotion, vocabulary, speech patterns, and everything else about how they sound. I like to add in their mannerisms as well, between asterisks to show that it isn't spoken words. When it is done, you share the interview either on your blog or with anyone else who you involved at first.
For examples of finished character interviews, check out these interviews of Nitri, Ace, and Keir. I'm also currently taking questions to put in an interview of Tempe over here if you want to see what the initial shout-out may look like.

4: Artwork
Maybe you don't feel like this one is for you. But honestly, you don't have to be an incredible artist to get some use out of this. Drawing your character is about capturing more than what they look like. Think about their posture - hands on hips, or a soldier's stance? What kind of clothing would they be wearing? What colors? Why do they wear what they do? Is there a habit they are often caught in which can be drawn?
My character Nitri is cocky and habitually tosses his fighting knives into the air and then catches them, without looking. I tried capturing the confidence and habit in my drawing of him - notice I never even drew his face. As I drew, I decided Nitri would have a coat - this developed into his refusal to take the coat off, because he's proud of it, because it was hard to steal. See? I got bits of backstory from it. As I drew the tears in his clothing I wondered why he wouldn't patch them. I came to the conclusion that he thinks patches look low-class (even more so than tears) and his vanity makes him endure a little draftiness rather than have multi-colored clothing.
You don't have to get very detailed with this. Stick figures could even help! Fool around with it and imagine what your character looks like, standing in the flesh, and see if you can capture them on paper. Any sort of visual can be a foundation for character traits.

5: Journaling / Social Media Accounts
I've only tried journaling once and didn't get much from it, but I know other writers find it incredibly helpful. There are a couple of ways to do it, as far as I've heard.
One is that you ask your characters questions, on paper, and write what you think they'd say in response. Sort of like a character interview without outside participation. This is what I tried. Maybe it could work for you, even if I was just stumped.
Two is that you write as the character, without anything of your own added in. Sort of like keeping a diary for your character. You could fiddle with this and run a private Facebook page as your character, or a Twitter account, or a blog. I tried the Facebook page version for Ace and Mara and that worked for a little while. It was cool posting status updates for them because I could contrast them really well. I even had to think about how they would have different writing styles. Mara used hashtags and all the little additions to status updates (e.g. feeling sad, watching Star Wars) and didn't particularly care about capitalization, while Ace just used words. I also had to think about the kinds of things they'd share, what they'd make their pages look like, etc.

6: Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator (MBTI)
Some people aren't fans of MBTI, but I am, and it has helped me with figuring out how a character should be acting before, so maybe you will find it useful too.
Myers-Briggs is a way to categorize different aspects of people's behavior. How they get energy, what they focus on, how they make decisions, and the way they organize their life are all represented using letters which form a four-digit code. With only four places in the code and two letter options for each place, there are a total of sixteen types. If you know how the system works and take a free online Myers-Briggs test as a character, you can use their personality type to fill in blanks about how they may behave. I wrote a more detailed post on the subject here.

7: Online Quizzes
Of course, the internet is loaded with quizzes about various topics. What kind of anger you have, what word describes you best, etc. While I don't think you can really rely on these for accurate information all the time, sometimes they do come out with something insightful. Taking these kinds of quizzes as your character may yield some information, or, if all else fails, may provide some inspiration for another character.
Sometimes the questions in the quizzes themselves will give you information. For instance, I took one quiz the other day that asked what style of wedding dress I liked most. Imagine taking it as your character - does she choose a very traditional dress? Modest? Short and colored? These quizzes are probably more useful for the questions they ask rather than the actual result!

8: Backstory Scenes
Writing extra backstory scenes can be dangerous ground. Whether or not you choose to write these, you should always know at least the major life events in your character's past. Sometimes, though, you may need a few extra details, and oftentimes those details don't come until your start writing the incident. I did this for my character Nitri, mostly because I wanted to see how he behaved back before he'd met Tyv. How did he handle fights? What did he spend his time on? I had fun writing a couple scenes for him and it gave me some interesting insights into his character. However, be warned that you don't get distracted with this. If you get carried away you can end up spending hours writing something that has nothing to do with your project.

9: Pinterest
Ah, we writers love Pinterest, don't we? All those shiny pictures and quotes and writing prompts. It is inspiration central, not to mention the treasure troves of advice on writing. It seems to me, though, that a lot of Pinning writers aren't taking advantage of Pinterest completely. Inspiration and advice is all well and good, but you can do a lot more! For every major and secondary character, I make a board. Then I fill it with pins of:
  • drawings and pictures of people which capture what your character looks like
  • quotes/phrases describing your character
  • quotes/phrases which your character would say
  • clothing your character might wear
  • weapons or accessories your character may carry
I love finding the quotes and phrases most. Mix it all in with a few pictures and all you have to do to get a feel for a character is take a quick scroll through their board. The "related pins" section under each pin is a great place to find even more material to add to your character's profile.
Your board doesn't have to be public, either. In fact, all of mine were secret until several months ago, when I knew I'd want to share my boards as part of Writer and Proud. It may even be better to keep the boards secret until you're close to publishing your book! It's your call, but either way, having a board to glance at for a reminder of who your character is is very useful and encouraging. I have loads of character boards on my Pinterest profile (link in the sidebar), but if you just want a quick look click here for Gabriel's board or click here for Ace's board.

Bonus: Name Meanings
I usually pay attention to this only when I first name a character. However, if you feel like your character is two-dimensional, it may be worth a shot to google his name and see what it means. You never know what might come up - maybe the meaning will give you another dimension to add to his personality.

That about wraps it up. Hopefully if you were looking for ways to develop your characters more, this list has given you some ideas.

What are some ways you typically develop your characters? Have you used any of the methods I mentioned? How useful do you find each one?


  1. Loved your post! I had never tried the social media option but it looks really fun. I usually make pinterest boards, research Myers Briggs, and use character sheets for my characters. I also find listening to music helps me flesh them out.

    1. Thise are the basic ones I use, too. I hadn't thought of music though! That's cool.
      Thanks for the comment!

  2. These are all awesome! I love doing quick outlines of my characters or "crash character" blurbs when I first get to know them. I open a Word document and write down everything I know about them which either generates more information than I initially had or generates questions I need to resolve.

    I never thought of a character chat, but that is one of the coolest ideas I've ever heard. I'll have to try it sometime.

    I also like MBTI! It's very helpful as a general outline and once you know your character more you'll see how they put their own individual spin on their type or that they may be a mash up of two or three types.

    Often times I use backstory scenes to get a better handle on the major events in a character's past. Other times, if I'm having trouble getting inside their head, going back in time helps too. And when I feel like I've lost sight of their voice and personality, I'll go back to a well-written scene or backstory from their POV and just read over it to refresh my memory. Or I'll even have them write a letter to another character or anything that I can think of!

    1. Character chats are amazing. xD I typically start my character sheets in the same way - jotting down any personality traits and appearances I know of. Then I start just brainstorming what they like and what they don't and roll with it.
      Writing letters between characters sounds really cool! I could see it being useful for actually going into a novel as well . . .
      Thanks for the comment!