Many a poor plot has been forgiven thanks to its amazing characters. Dynamic, realistic, relatable characters pull readers in, open their eyes, and steal their hearts. Most of us don’t start writing until we’ve come up with a character we just adore. But how can we make sure this character will also be adored by our readers?
Writers have to do more than just love their characters. We have to know them down to their cores and understand how to flesh them out in the pages of our books. Awhile back, a Wordplayer asked me how I got to know my characters—from conception all the way through the first draft. So let’s take a look!
1. Conception: Listen
Most of my protagonists come to me more or less fully grown. I get an image of them in my head and a sense of their personality or driving goal. This is always the best part of writing. At this point, I’m not a writer: I’m the sole member of the audience, sitting in my own private theater. I chomp my popcorn and watch, enthralled, to see what this fascinating person is going to end up doing.
This early period of gathering ideas can last several years, and during this time—especially at the very beginning—I try very hard not to over-analyze. I’m not in control. I don’t want to be in control. This is the part of the process in which my subconscious gets to have free rein. I don’t think too much about what kind of character would be good for a story, or what kind of a plot I need to create to make a killer book. If I push too hard, I lose the magic.
As my ideas begin to solidify a little bit, I will write a brief summary of the story, just so I don’t forget important details down the road. But that’s pretty much the only note-taking I do at this point. I do, however, try to name my characters as quickly as possible, since names inevitably influence the characters’ personalities.
2. Casting: Search
One of my guilty—if highly useful—pleasures is casting my characters. I do this as much for fun as anything. But, in truth, nothing does more to solidify and bring a character to life than assigning him a flesh-and-blood body with associated mannerisms. Is this cheating just a little bit? Maybe. But it works and it’s fun, so who cares?
Sometimes I will know instantly who to cast as a particular character. Other times, I will have to wait it out and try on different actors until I find the one who best embodies my character. Sometimes I’m never able to find just one actor to embody my character (Chris Redston in my fantasy Dreamlander went through at least five actors).
3. General Sketches: Organize
Once I’m ready to actually start writing my story, I sit down to write out my outline, starting with what I call “General Sketches” (more on that in my book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success). This early stage of the outline is where I write down everything I already know about my story—and particularly my characters.
For example, in outlining my historical Behold the Dawn, I knew the main character Marcus Annan was a knight. I knew he was physically powerful. I knew he was haunted by his past. And I knew he would be redeemed.
Once I had all that written down in front of me, I could step back and figure out what blanks still needed to be filled in. I started connecting the dots, asking “what if” questions, and digging deeper into both his backstory and the main story—until, suddenly, I was looking at some solid story ideas.
4. Character Interview: Analyze
Once I’ve finished my General Sketches and have a basic idea of the plot, I stop and interview all my characters. Over the years, I’ve created an extensive list of questions to ask myself about my characters—everything from their date of birth to their deepest regrets to their defining moments. You can find some of these questions in my free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters and all of them in Outlining Your Novel.Up to now, I’ve had a definite idea of who my character is. But the details are still pretty patchy. This is where I solidify my knowledge into facts. I learn what makes my character the way he is, what drives him to accomplish his goals, and what fears and misconceptions are holding him back.
I also explore minutiae such as favorite foods, colors, pastimes, etc. Most of that stuff won’t end up in the book, but it’s handy to have it in the back of my head in case I do end up needing it. Plus, of course, every little fact influences my overall perception of my character and my ability to represent him.
5. Outline: Discover
With the Character Interview in my rear-view mirror, I then dive into the outline itself. This is where I start focusing on scenes and plot points and structure. This is where I start paying attention to the craft, just as much as the emotionally driven art of the story.
At this point, I know who I want my character to be and how I want the story to play out. I’m then able to figure out, scene by scene, how to best meld character and plot into a cohesive whole. As I go, I begin to see my character in action, and my understanding of him will inevitably continue to grow. Sometimes things I wrote down in the Interview section will turn out to be wrong, and I’ll have to make changes on the fly. But, for the most part, the character is now pretty solid in my mind.
6. First Draft: Let Go
Finally, I’m ready to dive in and start the first draft. I’m fully prepared. I know my character, front and back. I know the path he’s going to be walking in the plot. And yet, this is also where my perception of everything changes.
Even with all that preparation creating a solid foundation under my feet, the first draft never turns out exactly as I think it will. Not until I actually start writing from the character’s perspective and get to hear his voice do I really understand him. His essence on the page is never completely what I think it will be. I’ve chronicled him and molded him for years, but only now do I truly get to understand him.
This is the point where I have to let go of all my left-brain logic and just let this character flow, straight from my subconscious and onto the page. If I try to dam that flow or take charge with my conscious brain, things often get messy. I have to give this character the space to be who he is—or else, what’s the point, right?
Writers all have slightly different processes for preparing for and creating their first drafts. This is truest of character creation. What I’ve shared here is how my characters are born. How yours come to life may be entirely different, but I hope you’re able to glean some new ideas from my journey with my boys and girls.
Tell me your opinion: What is your process for getting to know your characters?
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