How to Get Up Cclose with Your Characters

How to Get Up Close With Your Characters

How to Get Up Cclose with Your Characters

To create believable characters, novelists develop profiles. These descriptions of their characters—from birth conditions to major life event; weight, hair, and eye color; and character traits guide them as they write.

However, concrete details about the imaginary people who inhabit the pages of your manuscript don’t allow you to experience them. You can’t get up close and personal with your characters because you haven’t met, conversed, or developed a bond with of them.

“That’s impossible to do,” you might respond. “They are imaginary. My characters exist in my head, not in the ‘real’ world.”

You are right, but…

You can, in fact, get up close and personal with them.

Visualize Your Characters

By now you probably think I’m crazy. “Meet imaginary characters? Really?”

Yes, really.

Here’s one way to do so: Visualize your peeps—the people in your novel.

Creative Visualization for Writers Nina AmirWhen a runner wants to experience pushing past the halfway point in a race and crossing the finish line in first place, he imagines the scenario. He visualizes—and feels—the sweat running down his face, pain and heaviness in his legs, heaving and aching chest… and a burst of energy and change in focus that allows him to push through and complete the race successfully.

Why does the runner visualize rather than spend the time running? The mind can’t tell the difference between what is going on in the runner’s imaginary world—in his mind—and what is happening in the physical world. All his muscles fire just as if he were running. And his mind gets trained to help the body push through… rather than give up.

What’s this got to do with experiencing the characters you have developed for your novel? You can experience them in the same way—in your mind.

Bring your characters to life by visualizing them. Write your character profiles, and then imagine each character in action. How do they look and behave? What do they say or how do they talk?

You can even put yourself in your character’s shoes. Imagine you are the character. Visualize going through a day as if you were the character.

Each time you complete the visualization, write notes about what you noticed. This will help your develop the characters further.

Illustrate Your Characters

You also can experience your characters more closely if you create pictures of them. This time, I’m not talking about a mental picture. Use the profile you created to physically draw a picture of the character.

If you don’t possess artistic abilities, hire an artist on Fiverr.com or Upwork.com to do it for you. Give them the profile! Let them create an illustration. If it isn’t perfect the first time you receive their work, send the artist your revision suggestions. Work with the artist until you can see your character in the drawing.

If that doesn’t work for you, search magazines for a photo of someone who looks like your character. Or search the Internet for photos of actors and actresses who fit the bill. For example, before author Dianna Gabaldon’s Outlander series was aired on Starz, her fans chose the actors and actresses they thought should play the major roles. How? Based on their readings and mental pictures of the characters in of Gabaldon’s books.

Place the illustrations or photos of your characters on your desk so you can look at them as you write.

Have a Mental Meet and Greet

Let’s go one step further. Try a guided meditation that helps you get to know your characters.

That’s right… take a mental and visual journey to a place where you can meet the characters—or one character at a time—in your book.

Where does your protagonist hang out, for example? In your mind’s eye, imagine entering her office, home, bedroom, or even the scene of the crime. Or go running with him along the Hudson River, if that is his daily routine. Meet at the coffee shop where she writes each day—and buy her coffee, sit down at her table, and have a conversation.

Converse with your character in your mind. You can even tell your characters who you are and ask them what you should know about each one.

Touch them. Shake hands. Hug. Walk shoulder to shoulder. Sit side by side.

When you open your eyes, write down what you’ve learned. Use this information to revise or expand your characters’ profiles.

Now you’ve gotten up close and personal with the characters in your novel!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How do these experiences change how you view, think, and write about your characters? Does the information change the plot line for your novel? Will you have an easier time writing your book? Tell me in the comments!

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About Nina Amir | @NinaAmir

Nina Amir is an Amazon bestselling author of such books as How to Blog a Book, The Author Training Manual, and the recently released Creative Visualization for Writers (October 2016). She is known as the Inspiration to Creation Coach because she helps writers, bloggers, and other creative people combine their passion and purpose so they move from idea to inspired action and Achieve More Inspired Results. This helps them positively and meaningfully impact the world—with their words or other creations.

Comments

  1. I can’t draw for toffee. So I use The Sims 3 to create characters and settings. They’re not perfect, but it’s somewhere from which to start.

    The only character I have a problem interviewing is the Villain. He’s a scary dude. He’s like the lovely, clever mentalist Derren Brown gone rogue. He’s real and elusive at the same time. Is this covered in your book?

    • Hi, Lita. I don’t cover this specifically in the book. But there are tons of exercises to help you on many levels, including a whole section on creativity.

      In retrospect, I wish I had included these exercises!

      I think you need to do some visualizing of your villain. It will make him more believable.

  2. I could probably do that, but I don’t know if I can since there’s so much stuff I have to process already about what you said in your earlier articles.

  3. This was a great post! This technique is how I get to know my characters, because I always get tripped up on the list of details. I also do a lot of “casting,” which is just as fun as it is useful. 🙂

  4. HonestScribe says:

    Great post, as always. The marathon runner metaphor for visualizing characters was especially helpful. The visualization technique also works wonderfully as a warm-up before writing scenes that rely on physiological responses, like a fight or a chase.

    Recently, I’ve found that these techniques tend to work a little better for me than the traditional questionnaires. The problem with those is that you start out by thinking of the character as a collection of quantifiable statistics instead of a quirky human being. When we try to get to know people in real life, we don’t usually hand them a survey, after all. Only after getting into the character’s skin will I fill out the meatier parts of the fact sheet.

    • Yes, it’s true. This is about getting out of your head (thinking) and into your mind (imagination). Put yourself in their shoes–that’s another option rather than meeting them. Actually, be the character as you visualize.

  5. Great points here. The more your “know” your characters, the better the chances of them being realistic. And creating realistic characters is the solution to the problem of creating boring, generic, or flat characters.

    I’ve never really thought about having a literal illustration of a character. That might be worth a try and should work a lot more than a simple Word document saying “red hair” or “blue eyes.”

    • Yes, indeed. You can look at your character as you write…and even ask questions. What do you think you should do next? See what pops into your head.

  6. My characters come to life for me when I can hear them speak… their unique way of putting words together. Sometimes that happens when I’ve done a detailed checklist; other times, I’ve simply made a few intellectual decisions about the way they’ll speak (e.g., run-on sentences or clipped sentences, poor grammar, etc.) and the characters come to life before I’ve done their profiles. Sometimes it never happens, which, in my experience, usually means that I need to change the character, e.g., find a new villain, use a different character as the protagonist.

    Or, sometimes it means that I don’t yet really understand what my story is about and that I need to work on the story more.

    But when I can hear my characters speaking, I’m ready to write, and the writing goes much more quickly.

  7. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Nina!

    • Thank YOU! I loved thinking about this topic from a novelists point of view! I appreciate you being part of my blog tour for Creative Visualization for Writers.

  8. M.L. Bull says:

    Very fun post! 🙂

    Character dialogue is the thing that brings my characters more to life. Whenever I hear my characters speaking in my head, I just have to write it down. I think it’s one of the most important ways for readers to learn about your characters, by what they say. Though physical appearance is important too, but some things are better left unsaid so readers imagine things themselves. I guess we as writers just have to balance things out.

  9. Katie, this and last post, the site seems to drop the css stylesheet, after displaying fine for the home page. I’m on an Android tablet using Firefox, if that helps.

    Nice post. I am resistant to profiling my characters because though I plot extensively, I prefer to just to discover my character backgrounds and details as I go. However this visualization technique sounds interesting and useful.

    • Actually now the post style is coming through fine.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks, Rocky. Now… what does that mean? :p Can you explain what the problem you’re encountering looks like?

      • Doesn’t seem to be a problem anymore. It looked like a webpage from 1992. :-p. Just basic formatted text and blue underlined links.

        At a guess, you use WordPress.com? Maybe the part of the webpage backend that calls up the stylesheet was located on a server that wasn’t available for a bit, due to power outage or hurricane. Nothing to worry about I think.

    • I would think that visualization would help you get to know your character without a profile.

  10. I really have to disagree, I can’t ever imagine what it’s like to be a woman, a foreign national, a brain surgeon, etc. so I can’t walk in their shoes. As a result, I’ll have to use a different approach to building those characters.

    As a matter of fact I’ve compiled my character folders (which K.M.’s articles have routinely disrupted) from the opposite direction you suggest (magazines/newspapers) in that, I had no clear idea of anyone but my MC and yet, he was one of the last images I found. The others filled in as I’d read through newspapers and magazines and they’d just ‘pop out’ like, ooh she’d make a great evil twin, he’d work well in this role (I had to avoid really well knowns so their roles/professions/familiarity didn’t bleed over/cloud the characters they were standing in for/representing) Articles/ads also serving to fill in the motivations, backgrounds, hobbies, pet peeves. Combine those with Kenken puzzles or Sudoku, gives a unique floor plan for each and add the character interview K.M. developed… connect the dots and the characters take on dimension outside my head.

    The survey, for me, is like a blueprint from which to build off of. After all, an architect doesn’t describe the building to the lead contractor, but uses plans/framework to build from. Between that and the conceptual drawings the building takes shape.

  11. I do visualize my characters when I create them but this goes even further. I shall try some of these out.

  12. Elizabeth Gillilan says:

    Cool article! I’d never thought of the visualizing method before. I might just try that.
    I do enjoy free-writing made up scenarios to test how my characters think and react. I plop them down somewhere and play with them. Some times I introduce different characters who will never meet and discover how they see each other, give them super powers, write them interacting as kids and see how they’ve changed, or even place my medieval characters in the modern world to see how they cope. Whatever I feel like to get further inside their head.
    Another trick I really enjoy to using online dress up games to visualize my babies. Some are cheesy, but if you know where to look there are beautiful historical and fantasy “games” with an incredible level of detail and customization. You can find a style you like and design your character how you want. No artistic talent or pricy commission artist necessary! Some sites will even let you use your creations publically provided you cite credit.
    I recommend AzaleaDolls.com or DollDivine.com. My favorite is probably their “LOTR Maker.” You can pick from five different races, customize hair, face shape, colors, choose from a wide selection of clothing and weapons, and detailed accessories. You can even add dirt and scars! If fantasy isn’t you’re thing, you can find games featuring Greek, Roman, Viking, Renaissance, Tudor, Regency, Mythical creatures, and Modern styles to name a few.
    Hope that helps someone 🙂

  13. I’ve done it this way since I started writing novels. I’m a veteran of 44 years as a professional actor…with a degree in drama. My first book was a how-to called Acting is Storytelling that I wrote for my acting students when I started teaching twenty years ago. The first three chapters deal with creating a ‘Backstory’ for the characters that we, the actor, get to portray. We get to play God and create the character from the description given by the writer and sometimes out of whole cloth.
    It’s that practice of creating (in writing) a backstory from the elements given or from whole cloth portion that I found served me in good stead as a novelist. I first create my characters, via a complete backstory from birth including positive and negative attributes (personality) before I ever write the story. Then I ‘play’ each character (a by-product of my acting training and experience) as I write them into the story (I do the same when I adapt the novel to the audio version).
    My characters are real to me. I create a movie in my head, listen to the characters, and then write down what they say to each other. I let them tell the story.

  14. Visualising comes easy to me but accents trick me. Would you know where I can hear Japanese speaking English online, not learning English, actually conversing, omitting certain words and letters.

    • Try YouTube. That’s where I go for accents.

    • On most YouTube’s they are reading English, or trying hard to speak English correctly. I’m wanting the more natural clipped conversation you’d hear before lessons. My novel is set in the early 1900s. Thanks Ken

      • Kaycee, I think you have to be real careful in writing dialogue phonetically. There’s a fine line between legibility and confusion. I try to write accents only so far as to give an impression…not to be a full accent no one would understand. You’d lose the reader in a heartbeat.

  15. It’s often said that you should write about what you know. This is particularly so where creating convincing characters is concerned. ‘What you know’ simply becomes ‘who you know’.

    If your characters are based on people you know well… even as composites of two or more… then it’s easy to visualise them, because you know them already. If their backgrounds have been well constructed, and the way they react to experiences is natural to characters of their type, then it’s easy to ensure they behave realistically because it’s the only way they can react to the situations you put them in. If you get it wrong, it will stand out like a Ferrari in a car park full of rusty pick-up trucks on the read through, so you can go back into the scene and get it right.

    Surely, if a character is difficult to visualise, then that character needs ‘re-drawing’, or at least needs working on a little, because he or she hasn’t been constructed well enough. Likewise, if you can’t make them behave as they should.

    You’ll know when you’ve got a character right because they’re your offspring and you’ll care about them. If something bad happens to one of them… even though it’s by your own hand… it will hurt you, unless they really deserved it.

    If you have kill off a good guy to suit the plot, you should feel guilty about it. If you don’t, then that ‘good guy’ hasn’t been well enough crafted.

    • I think you are right–if you can’t visualize the character, there’s a problem. You should be able to imagine sitting down with them and having a conversation.

  16. Great article, some things I hadn’t thought of! Last year I stumbled on a free 3d program that I now use to create my characters and some of my settings, etc. I’m super visual, so it makes a huge difference for me, and often setting up a scene in that frees up my brain to hammer out story problems by removing words from the equation. Or I’ll just naturally include something in the 3d scene that I’ve forgotten in the written one, and be like, duh…

    The bonus is I can use the better final renders on my website, Facebook page, and in covers, too. The downside is it’s a huge time suck to learn and perfect (and, although the program is free the add-ons that make the really cool stuff possible aren’t, so it adds up), but since it all contributes to the writing in the end, it seems worth it. And creative hobbies are good, right? 🙂

    If anyone’s interested, the program is Daz3d. Compared to something like Blender (also free), it’s much easier to learn and do.

  17. The prolific line “I see dead people” comes to mind when I write my characters and bring my ‘peeps’ to life. When I’m out and about I look at everyday people and can visualize them as the people in my stories. I’ll say to myself, “Oh, he looks like Barnett or she walks like Carla. I even go as far as selecting actors who could play them in the movie. Sounds kind of crazy, but it works for me. Thank you for the wonderful information everybody!

  18. Good one, Nina. I have a much easier time animating my protagonist if he/she is based on a real character whose attitude to life is obvious. Who has a favourite line that defines that belief system. I only have to recall that attitude, and their actions ooze out nicely from there. This is a good reminder to wade into my current project and make sure I’ve got everybody’s belief systems nailed down. Cheers.

  19. Yes!! Great reminders 🙂 I’m all for getting close to your characters and have to get picture of an actor or actress every time I write a book…it helps a lot. Sometimes I’m writing a scene and I’m stuck, so I quickly glance at the characters and all flows well after that 🙂

  20. It’s interesting that you mentioned drawing your characters. That’s something I enjoy doing. I’ve heard of `interviewing’ your characters. I’ve never actually done it, though I love reading the interviews you posted for `Dreamlander’ and `Storming’. Hmmm… if I ever used my author magic to jump into the world of my current MC I’m afraid I’d start by warning him against talking to strangers, which would kind of kill the interview. 😉

  21. True Ken, it is only the odd word, but I’d like to actually hear the Japanese- English spoken to determine where the accent lies. Accents worked well in my last novel, but sadly not Japanese. I’ve spent a lot of time looking, I was hoping someone had a good link. Many thanks

  22. Hi Nina,
    Love the ways to get immersed in the character – it’s about finding that simple sweet spot where you can go into and out of character whilst doing everything else. Keeping visible reminders around my workspace helps me too.

  23. I have the fortune to have been able to develop my drawing skills since after I graduated high school, but even I don’t do fully detailed sketches when I’m brainstorming a story. Sometimes I use stick figures to act out a scene just to see if my characters are doing anything more than major info dumps. If they’re just talking heads who aren’t even conversing over a cup of coffee, then I know something needs to be tweaked. This is also good when I playing around with jokes. I remember for one story I drew a simple, three-picture comic of a disoriented character asking a worried character something insulting, and the worried character laughs and says, “You ARE okay!” Nothing grand like the Mona Lisa. Just a few sketches to see if the comedic timing was good.

    Even for gorgeously animated works, if you ever look at some of the storyboards, the concept drawings sometimes look like the work of an amateur – but the point is to see the characters doing stuff, not make them look pretty. (That comes for the final project.)

  24. I love this article! I was having trouble with my characters several weeks ago and started wondering why it was so easy for me to write fan fiction than my own fiction. It dawned on me that it’s because I already know the characters – their appearance, their mannerisms, their reactions, facial expressions, etc. I tried to figure out a way I could “get to know” my own characters. So I went online and typed rough physical descriptions of them into Google, then pored over pictures until I found exactly the right people to represent them. I then created a Twitter account for each of my three main characters and had them start tweeting each other. I don’t think I had 25 tweets between the three of them before I had personalities and mannerisms and reactions…then I began to be able to develop my characters from there.

    I’ll admit it felt a bit weird…and when I told one of my nieces about it, she pretty much told me it was weird. But it worked…and now, about 45,000 words into what’s going to be a lot more than a 50,000-word novel, it’s a technique I think I will continue to use for future projects. Keeping an image of my main character (and muse) on my computer desktop while I write has also been very helpful, especially since I have several pictures representing facial expressions, different ages, etc. to help me in describing various aspects of him.

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