Getting to Know Your Characters

Photo credit: Rob Ellis on Flickr
Looking back, a problem I had in many of my earlier WIPs was that all of my characters sounded the all of them, but most were definitely far too similar.
same. Ok, maybe not

I often didn’t recognize the problem until I was nose-deep in revisions, and by that stage it was very difficult to fix it. No longer was it a matter of tweaking dialogue here and there—the only way to correct it was to completely rewrite the character.

Not an enjoyable experience, let me tell you. Especially when it plagues more than one character. Oftentimes I didn’t do it; I started a new WIP instead.

So how can you avoid this? Is there any way to prevent flat characters in a first draft?

The answer is yes. And although I can’t guarantee your characters will be perfect the first time around (in fact, they probably won’t) taking a few extra steps before and while you write can help tremendously.

So! What am I talking about?

Do this BEFORE you write:

Interview your characters…about each other. One of the biggest problems I tend to have in the early stages of writing is voice. This is a significant issue since I often write in first person.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who has encountered this.

So! To remedy the everyone-sounds-the-same disease, let your characters tell you about each other. Even if you’re in the early brainstorming stages, you must have some idea of at least two characters. If you don’t, make up another characters, because you’re going to need them eventually.

Do you have at least two characters in mind? Good, now whip out a blank sheet of paper (or blank document) and label the top with your character’s name. For the sake of not utterly confusing you all, let’s say you have one character named Jimmy and another named Rachel. 

So, slap a nice, big, fat, JIMMY at the top of the page. Now ask yourself, what does Jimmy think of Rachel? and write down what he tells you exactly. Even if you’re writing your WIP in third person, I recommend trying this exercise in first. The nuances you get from discovering each character’s voice will be just as useful in third person as they will in first.

Now write let Rachel tell you about Jimmy. Do this with all of your major characters and note the differences in the voice. Maybe Jimmy curses a lot and uses a lot of short sentences. Or maybe Rachel speaks eloquently and thinks Jimmy is an uneducated moron. Or maybe the other way around. Go all out. Don’t let your characters leave anything behind. Promise them confidentiality so they don’t hold back. Write at least a paragraph.

You’ll get not only different voices out of it, but you’ll learn what the characters think of each other, which is particularly invaluable.

HINT: Are your characters being too nice to each other? Let Rachel rant about that time Jimmy pissed her off. It’ll be more fun to write and you’ll be surprised what gems turn up. 

Finished? Awesome! Now…

Do this BEFORE and WHILE you write:

Create character sheets. These include their name, age, birthday, birth place, physical description, fears, hobbies, dreams, desires, family background, etc. etc. If you don’t want to make up your own, that’s fine, there are plenty of excellent resources out there. I highly recommend this blog post for a list of great writer resources and specifically The Novel Notebook for useful novel-building worksheets galore.

Links aside, character sheets are immensely useful for keeping track of trivia about your characters and avoiding the OH NO FLAT CHARACTER syndrome. Remember that even your minor characters have their own lives that can color what they do and make them more interesting.

CHALLENGE:  Fill out a character sheet for EVERY character. Yes, every character. That means even the taxi driver. Why? Because he has a family, dreams and fears too. And if you take the time to get to know him, he might just surprise you with something memorable.

Know your characters before you write, and I guarantee they’ll be much more fleshed out in your first draft than they would have otherwise.

Since we’re talking about characters, who are your favorite characters? You may pick as many as you like. 


Carissa Andrews said...

Nicely written! I couldn't agree more... This is an important step that so many skip. Great post!

Krista said...

I have so many favorite characters! I will name just afew: Hari from The Blue Sword, Terran from the Prydain Chronicles and Lucy from The Chronicles if Narnia.

By the way, love the advice. Going to use in my WIP!

Gabe (Ava Jae) said...

Let me know how it turns out!

I realized I didn't tell you guys my favorite characters. It's tough. Hmm. I've got so many!

Ok, ok, I should answer my own question.

I love Sirius and the Weasley twins from Harry Potter, Four from Divergent, Johnny from Saint and probably twenty others that I'll think of as soon as I hit "Post Comment."

Like Artemis Fowl. Oh! Oh! And Finnick Odair from The Hunger Games Trilogy. How I love Finnick...

Ok, I'm going to stop bombarding you guys with characters now. Promise.

Joseph said...

Great post! I did a post like this the other day!

Unknown said...

Ooo. I love character sheets, so CHECK!

I interview them a lot because they're often too stubborn to tell me what they're really like. I feel like an outside person trying to invade their personal space. It's not a pretty feeling.

In all honesty, I hadn't thought about asking them to talk about one another. I kinda know what they'd say and it's not all nice, but I've never sat down and written it. So thanks for the idea. It's worth the try. *hugs*

The East Coaster said...

Oh man, the ONE time I didn't do character sheets for a book, it took 800 years to write and edit. It's still not finished and I still don't like it. May never finish it at this point. It is also the same book I didn't outline for in advance.

Never again...neverrrrrraaaaagainn.

Gabe (Ava Jae) said...

I can't stress enough how useful character sheets are (even to myself...I forget sometimes. :D)

Glad everyone's liked the post so far! ^_^

Laura Pauling said...

I love when secondary characters have their own mini arc in a story. It adds so much depth.

Jessica Silva said...

These are all great ideas :D I usually have a feel for my characters before I write, and my voice develops (first or third-person) in the first draft. Then I fix everything second draft. Sometimes I make character sheets, sometimes I don't! They just get so teeeeeeeeedious...

Robin Red said...

YES! A while back, I pulled a Lemony Snicket and wrote a poem for one of my characters as if I was in her world. I don't think she received the letter, however. She was too busy saving the world and the postal service has been in disarray for some time. It certainly made her seem real, though. I'll try interviewing. It sounds really fun.

Ava Jae said...

Interesting! I'd never heard (or even thought of) writing a poem to a character. What a fun exercise!

Best of luck interviewing! :)

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