Jan. 31, 2021: Getting to Know Your Characters
Characters can make or break a story. You might have the most amazing settings, riveting storylines, and a gift for language that makes your words sing, but if your characters are not authentic and believable, your novel can sink.
As an author, before we even think of beginning to write their story, we must get to know our characters. This may seem silly- after all, as the writer, we are creating the character, of course we know who they are. But before you can write your characters, you must truly and deeply understand them. Characters have a way of evolving and growing and revealing themselves to us as the writer. Our job then is to spend as much time as we can getting to know them prior to drafting the story.
While every writer has their own strategies and processes for doing this, some of the ones I use myself, and share with my students are:
- Create a “snapshot summary”
This is short, descriptive statement that helps you understand the type of person that your character is. I tell my students to start their statements with “She was the kind of woman who….” Or “He was the kind of man who would….”
For example, “She was the kind of woman who would walk across the entire grocery store parking lot on a 98 degree day just to make sure the cart was put back into the cart corral.”
- Create their Diary or Journal
Actually write up journal or diary entries from your character’s point of view. Write about a typical, normal boring day in their life. Imagine events that impacted them and write about it from their vantage point. These “events” and feelings may not be directly connected to the story you plan to tell, and they may never make it into the text, but they will deepen your understanding of your character.
This also helps you to develop your character’s voice, because whether you are writing the story from first or third person point of view, your character’s perspective must come through.
- Write up their personal timeline.
Include the obvious and the relevant, (date of birth, when they first met another character in the story) but include the irrelevant as well. When they got their first speeding ticket, or when they got their first pet. You are creating their entire backstory.
While these events may seem irrelevant to the story, it helps you to understand and flesh out your character in a deeper way. These are the things that help to explain how and why they act the way they do.
- Create a list of their favorites and not-so-favorites
Favorite food, movie, wine, or color. Create a list of things they love or hate. Are they a Walmart shopper or would they rather be caught dead than going through a MacDonald’s drive-thru? Are they a militant non-smoker? Do they love fresh cut flowers? Rap music? Does he hate children? Does she hate broccoli? List both the significant and the insignificant.
Once you really know who your characters are, writing their story is not only easier, but you are less likely to have inconsistencies that may take away from your novel.