Becoming Your Character

This guest post is by G.G. Vandagriff.

Can butterflies do somersaults?

Where did that thought come from? Have you ever noticed that just before you fall asleep, your mind leaps from ordered thought into a realm that makes no earthly sense? From there it is but a step to your dream life.

Natalie Goldberg, in her wonderful resource for writers Writing Down the Bones, calls this part of us our “monkey mind.” She claims, and I agree with her, that our best, most original writing comes when we are in touch with thoughts in the realm of my butterflies doing somersaults. These are also “morning thoughts.” Therefore, doing writing exercises first thing in the morning, spilling out your monkey mind into your exercise notebook, will often lead to a completely fresh take on the book you are writing. Your characters will grow in complexity and freshness.


When I am writing and become stalled, I know this: I need to go deeper into character. That is always the answer that yields a . It often changes the direction of my book completely, but that is good if you write character-driven fiction.

In order to go deeper into character, I must access the subconscious thoughts of those who people my books. Getting into their monkey minds—the intuitive leaps they make—is exciting and refreshing. It is the serendipity in the writing process. I love to be surprised by my characters.

For this reason, some of my best writing occurs at midnight after I have shed the days’ concerns and schedules. My mind is most creative when I am just on the edge of sleep—either first thing in the morning or last thing at night.

I am trying hard at the moment to get deeper into the mind of a new Regency romance heroine. I have decided that she is a painter with a passion for the Italian Renaissance (like I am!). So, in order to give reality to this part of her life (i.e., show not tell), I went to the Internet and pulled up the National Gallery of London’s collection of one Italian Renaissance painter that I love—Sandro Botticelli. I took my favorite painting from the collection—Portrait of a Young Man—and putting myself in the mind of my nineteen-year-old heroine, I described it on a page of notepaper by hand. As a painter, different things would impress her than the things that impress me as a writer. It was an interesting stretch—a change of point of view. When I have her pointing these things out to my hero (who has never studied a painting in his life), I believe it will carry my reader inside her head to share the vision she is so passionate about. (By the way: It really is an extraordinary painting!)

This kind of “split personality” exercise is truly beneficial to our writing. In The Duke’s Undoing, my latest release, my heroine is a writer. So I have a novel within a novel. To take the writer into that heroine’s head, I had to write a few paragraphs here and there from her point of view. What were the influences on her writing style at that time? Most likely, she would have been very melodramatic, as the bestselling women’s novels at the time were Gothics. Even though she was trying to have an original voice, she still would have been influenced by their style. It was great fun to become an early nineteenth-century writer for a few minutes here and there.

The more you can become your character, the more authentic the character will be. Sometimes this can be painful. In my award-winning epic, The Last Waltz: A Novel of Love and War, my heroine had to endure the torturous reality of World War I. I was sunk so deeply in her vision, that the world about me became dark and depressing. How was I supposed to bring my poor heroine some hope? Some peace? How was she to go on? As I pondered this over and over, I finally saw a ray of light shine through the darkness. A voice in my head said, “You cannot bear this alone. You were never meant to. Remember that death is not the ultimate tragedy. The ultimate tragedy is not doing what you were born to do.”

As far as I was concerned, that was a miracle. These serendipities are what make me love being a writer. More than love it! I am passionate about being a writer.

How to tap into your monkey mind, or the monkey mind of your characters:

  • View a painting from your or your character’s point of view and write a one or two page spontaneous story about it.
  • Listen to a piece of music doing the same.
  • Read the first line of a novel or a stanza of poetry and do the same.
  • View a landscape and do the same.

Have some fun with your characters for company! Enjoy!

Tell me your opinion: What exercises do you use to get into your characters minds?

About the Author: G.G. Vandagriff is the author of thirteen books, a magazine columnist, and a guest columnist for the Deseret News. Her latest book, The Duke’s Undoing, is her second indie publication, available on Amazon. She loves visitors to her website.

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Great post. Sometimes I just write rubbish that isn’t really relevant to my character, like my own idiosyncrasies and stuff. So this is useful 🙂

  2. I think that’s a lovely idea: listening to music or visiting a painting through the eyes of your character. I love art and music, because they take you to a deeper, non verbal level, so it makes sense that tapping into that level with your character would make that character come alive. For my own part, I don’t have a lot of exercises for getting into characters’ minds, I mostly just think on them and imagine their feelings and lives. But this makes me want to try Vandagriff’s exercise. (On a side note, I love the idea of butterflies turning somersaults. What a charming image.)

  3. An interesting (I think) exercise I did with the characters of my next book is to write down on slips of paper something like ten personality traits — just randomly, in no particular order. Then I tried to arrange them in a hierarchy: character a is like this because of this, and like that because of the other. It actually worked really well, and a character who seemed one-dimensional and kind of easy turned out to be the most complex.

    I also paired personality traits from two characters and said: “Okay, if A is being driven by this, and B responds according to this drive, what might happen?”

    It was all quite fun, especially since it was the first time I’d done anything like it.

  4. I put myself in their frame if mind. If my character is panicked, sad, angry — I try to work myself up to feel the same. It’s easier writing down descriptions when they’re fresh in my mind. I tend to forget little quirks if I’m not in the Monet”.

  5. Great stuff, G.G! Thanks for sharing with us today.

  6. Excellent post… Thanks. I do love Writing Down the Bones and am well-acquainted with Monkey Mind. I’ve been trying to tame mine for years.


  7. I did something like this with my first book, a book of poetry. I have been writing for the same character for close to 30 years now, in different incarnations of course (I love putting her in new sandboxes) and seeing how she reacts. Due to this (and other character development techniques), she has become one of those ‘characters who write themselves’. I was already a poet, many years ago, and had written on my own experiences, but I put the poet’s pen in her hand for a while, starting a prose about her sitting at a table and writing her pain out in poetry. As a result, about half of the poems in my book are written from a definitively female perspective and credited to her in the forward/dedication page.

    The funny thing is, I get into my ‘monkey mind’ by thinking of her lives through the ages and her poetry. She sees the world in a vastly different way than I do and I feel that I cannot write her correctly until I make the daily transition from omnipotent being to just a fly on her shoulder, enjoying the ride and hanging on for dear life – and that is for the ‘rough draft’, a re-read and edit over what she has essentially ‘dictated’ to me, from her POV, required to turn her tale into something that the audience can appreciate. 🙂

    It probably sounds odd, but it works for me – I am the puppet and she is the puppeteer.

  8. G.G. I love your words “The deeper we can get into the world of our characters, the more authentic the characters will be.” I think that’s been my challenge…is to go really deep into my heroine’s head…I’m going to try your exercises! Thanks so much for your help 🙂

  9. I harnessed my “monkey mind” in a fight scene recently where my protagonist was duking it out in a knockdown drag out hand to hand fight with a perceived lady nemesis he was looking to escape from. In the middle of the fight with both of them beaten up pretty badly in the course of events that transpired a monster bursts in and the fight scenario changes and they have to team up. Now both of them being pinned by the monster (and this my monkey mind talking here) he is staring at her now exposed breasts because her shirt was ripped open in the fight and get he nearly gets slapped down into a wall by the gruesome monster. She covers up and gives him a rebuke “are you kidding me”. I thought to myself “hey some men get distracted by their inconvenient biology” just seeing a woman in a bikini they will crash a car. And given the chance they will sneak a peek as I would and lose focus from time to time only to get clocked making for a more complicated and interesting fight. I felt my own quirks and idiosyncrasies funneled into this character making him more human and with more gravity than what they refer to as a Gary Stu who is perfect and unflappable in every way.
    Of course he manages to save the day albeit for moment and both their lives and she thanks him for doing just that as she is helped to her feet. And then she punches him in the jaw exhibiting the flash of a hidden power and it sends him flying into a wall saying if he ever touches her again referencing their fight that she will kill him.
    I had to figure that my brief scene of voyeurism might alienate female readers and that might make the male audience cheer so I thought what most of the women I know do if someone saw them half naked that they disliked( besides call the police as this is a science fantasy setting). Ding! Ok they would hand them their ass and thus the scales are balanced and a friendship of characters is born.

  10. Wonderful post. I will start employing this right away. I suspect it will do wonders for my current WIP.

    When I’m in the planning stage of writing, to understand my characters’ minds, I write random scenes from their past. In this way, I learn so much about them.

    I also write when I’m sick. I find that, while my grammar might make my English teachers weep, the emotions are rawer and my characters better able to act without my censure.

  11. I just enjoy taking on different characters. Just for fun, or to entertain friends. 😀

    It’s not that hard to start creating a character from a few basic personality points… (i.e. quiet, shy, easily embarrassed). 😀

    Thanks for a few pointers though.. 😀

  12. I’ve always been fascinated by these strange and random thoughts that occur when one is in a “groggy” state. Before bed I find that my thoughts jump around as if I’m already dreaming, and in the morning I tend to feel as if I haven’t quite emerged from dream-land yet. Must be the Monkey Mind at work!

    Listening to music and observing art is a great way to get creativity going. I’m looking forward to trying your suggestions.

  13. Glad I was able to “tickle your fancy” writers! Now I must get back to my W.I.P.

  14. It’s always amazing when those thoughts hit.

  15. First: Love Natalie Goldberg! Writing Down the Bones was the first book on craft that I read and I keep it on my shelf and go back to it frequently.

    An exercise for getting to know your characters:
    Gather some writer friends and give them a basic introduction of your character, as you know him or her, then let your friends have at. No question is out of bounds: what happened when she was three that changed her life forever? Did he ever experiment sexually? At what age and what happened? What’s her favourite colour and why? Even something apparently dull can lead to an interesting story if the words “and why” are appended to any question. Telling stories about your characters this way deepens your understanding of them and allows you to put in those telling details that give your characters life on the page.

  16. I do this almost always; its so much fun and sure brings out the best, great post!

  17. I love the thought of the monkey mind. I have noticed that some mornings, that’s the best time for my creativity.

  18. I’m with you on the early mornings. That’s when my mind is at its freshest. I found your post very helpful as I write character driven stories, as my style is first person.

  19. This is an interesting post, Ms. Vandagriff, and I do use your sage advice already – kind of.

    Everything I write comes out in chunks then I get away from it and “cleanse my palette,” if you will. A lot of your suggestions are part of the “cleansing”. I call it “getting back to my life” until I dive back in, fix the last thing I wrote, go back a few pages to make sure the story pacing is right, then if there is nothing else new on my mind I re-read the whole thing. Inevitably lightning strikes again and the process starts anew.

    I thought the book was finished when I posted it on my website but one sentence in the resolution kept bugging me. I needed to give my antagonist a viable motivation. The line that bugged me was this: the man my protagonist married is described as a cold, unemotional fish stemming from when his own mother rejected him. So I wrote the scene when the mother kicks him out forever and he vows to never again expose himself to love, in all some 800-words. I found a place to fit it in then smoothed out the transitions. The character got a deeper understanding that added to the reader’s experience and I declared the book finished – finally – or at least until the next re-write.

  20. Anonymous says

    I like this idea.
    When I write, I am my main character. I mean, I could feel its feelngs and I think with its brain, I’m another person.

    Besides, listening to music always inspire me. Especially Irish and traditional british, american folk songs. They have very deep meanings. :


  21. I use the post-it note method. My husband will often come in the room and find it covered with post-it notes about my characters. I tend to start out with a question like: “Who is [insert my character’s name]?” and then I use various descriptive words written on post-its to branch out. I continually ask myself questions like “Why would this character act like this?” and “Why does this word describe my character?” and “What motivates my character negatively/positively to act like this or feel like this?” It’s a great exercise and usually takes up over half of my wall or more. Sometimes I walk around and talk to myself with a notebook as if I’m having a conversation with my character. I always get funny looks if I do this in public, but it’s part of the bizarre fun of being a writer.

  22. Okay, now I don’t feel too nuts lol. I am writing a mystery (crime) and my main character is a guy. I don’t want to give too much away, but I was thinking about “getting into character” and wondering if it would be nuts to listen to the music from then, or surround myself from “props” from then. I even considered buying a Remington Streamliner (which I still want to!) But, it’s good to see that this is not crazy talk lol and that other people do it as well!

  23. The one thing that really caught my attention was the reference to the “exercise notebook.” I need to reserve one to remind me to do exercises more often.

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