6 Must-Know Tricks for Getting to Know Your Characters

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?

6-must-know-tricks-for-getting-to-know-your-character

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland's monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.
Email:
About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Oh, I think this is a wonderful past 😀 I guess something we start with a very clear character, and sometimes we just have no idea what this person really wants. THAT can be horrible!
    Thanks for the post!
    Hugs,
    M.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      To use the old cliche, characters are like onions. We often see the big picture right from the very beginning. But we don’t really know this person until we slowly start peeling back layer after layer.

  2. Good article and the new site looks great!

  3. Nicely written with good advice. I play the “Casting Game” as well. It really does help me get out of tight spots from time to time. And, yes, sometimes the characters change actors more often than Dr. Who. As long as we keep writing!

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      The great thing about casting is readers will never know we’re doing it. So we’re free to be as inconsistent as we need to be behind the curtains. Grab a smile here, a mannerism there. It’s all good.

  4. Usually, I let the characters tell me a few things about them and what their story will be about. I’ll jot down about a paragraph of info–basically what I know about them: general description, age, a small amount of background info–then I’m usually jumping in to the story to discover who these characters are. My bios for the characters usually get expanded as I go through a couple of drafts and I learn more about who these people are…

    (Can you say “pantser”? 😉 )

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Since we’ll never truly know our characters until we start writing that first draft, there’s a lot to be said for that approach. I prefer to always be as prepared as possible before starting the first draft, but it’s true that sometimes the things I came up with about the character in the prep stages get trashed in the first draft.

  5. Thank you for this! I’m trying to get an ensemble of 6 to gel and it’s slow-going right now. I will definitely try these techniques!

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      The more characters a story requires, the more juggling we have to do – especially if we’ve also upped the POV count. I just finished a story with three evenly balanced POVs. Very challenging.

  6. Love the new site! Great post about characters! I don’t do detailed character sketches ahead of time anymore because they have a tendency to change on me throughout the story, so I develop their sketch as they develop within the story.

    I’m really enjoying Structuring Your Novel! It’s helping me with my current WIP!

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      I look at character sketches as a way to plumb the depths of the underwater iceberg. I consciously brainstorm things about my characters that I probably never would naturally come up with in the course of the first draft. But I also maintain the sketches as a very fluid guide. What needs to happen in the first draft always takes precedence.

  7. I love creating new characters and discovering their stories! I have also found recently that casting actors as my characters, actually having a picture of them in front of me, helps immensely with keeping the character’s personality and physical attributes consistent.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      I use pictures extensively in planning stories. I keep folders of characters, settings, costumes, vehicles, weapons, you name it. It’s all very helpful in visualizing the story world.

  8. Great timing! I’m trying to update a story from 1350 (The Sargent of Law’s story about Constance, from Canterbury Tales). (It was one of the free book on my ereader, and I need to find 10 stories to perform this year.) Chaucer (or at least the Sergent) thought women should be mousey doormats. I should ask her why she gave up so easily, so often.

  9. It was kismet that we met tonight.

    So, I’m in a fight with all my characters of my first novel. Just kidding. I just realized at draft five that I don’t really know my characters as well as I should. I developed them through the story and all the edits, but when I found myself asking questions about them, obvious ones like ‘what is her family like?’ I realized I was missing a huge component of my story!

    The past week I’ve been doing what you do in the beginning- figuring out details, outlining their lives, etc. I have yet to interview. I’ve got a mental block/stigma I still have to work through.

    Basically, thanks. I really needed this tonight. Glad I found you! I can’t wait to hear more. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Interviewing characters is one of my favorite parts of the process. Characters are, after all, the heart and soul of what we do. So have fun! 😀

  10. Tammy J. Palmer says:

    My characters don’t come alive until I put them in a scene and let them talk so I jump right into a first draft. Plotting doesn’t come until later. I end up deleting good stuff for the sake of the story, and it’s all terribly inefficient, but eventually I get a finished story.

    Fun post.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      The writing process is always about doing *whatever* works. Jumping into the middle of sloppy first drafts is what’s going to work best for some of us. Anyway, sometimes messy *is* more fun. 😉

  11. I’m having trouble “melding my characters and my plot.” And maybe my protagonist and antagonist. And also I’m having trouble giving my protagonist a believable enough goal for her to be so driven… After all, I have a hard enough time making goals for MYSELF in real life… I know everything about my characters; their past, their secrets, their interests, strengths, weaknesses, the worlds they live in and the families they have… you name it. But it’s not enough. I’ve been stuck for TWO YEARS now! I scrapped my old story to start anew, (due to plot holes and… well, the same problems I’m having now, it just had to be restarted..) but now I don’t know how to start it up again. My characters all have my depression, it seams, and would be happy daydreaming the rest of their lives. I can’t think of a way to put them in the way of my antagonist to spur them on- even if they were in the antagonist’s way, I doubt they’d do anything… There’s one way they would, but then there’d be no character arcs… I’m just getting really frustrated and sad. I’ve tried “killing my darlings” (from the outline, no less) and that still hasn’t helped. I really have no idea how to start from scratch. I’ve attempted seven times, all with different stories, but I still keep having “goal” problems. My characters are just way too apathetic. I think I’m going to have to turn to insanity, but how would you develop an insane character? What would the outcome be at the end of the story? Your protagonist is supposed to grow, but I’ve never figured out how you “heal from ghosts,” even in real life. I don’t know if you’ll respond, but if you have any thoughts, anything you think that will help, I’d really appreciate it.

    Thanks, Rossomak

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It sounds like this is all coming back to missing character motivation. If they don’t have a good enough reason to pursue the goal – specially in the face of obstacles from the antagonistic force – then they won’t pursue it. Simple as that. You have to figure out a reason *why* they want their goal badly enough to pursue it to the ends of the earth.

  12. I like to just toss my characters into a situation and see how they react. Once I’ve worked out their general reactions, responses and mannerisms, then I can start to ask why they act that way and what things I might want to change about them to make them stuck out more.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s true: we never truly know our characters until we actually start playing with them on the page.

  13. This is such a great artist article! Not only did it help develop my characters, but it was beautifully written. Also, it is really motivating and helped me keep on writing my novel.

Trackbacks

  1. […] "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."  […]

  2. […] 4. 6 Must-Know Tricks for Getting to Know Your Characters […]

Speak Your Mind

*