Monday, January 11, 2016

How To Find The Heart Of Your Character

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series and the Ellie Sweet books. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

One of the biggest struggles of starting a new story is feeling like you don't know these characters yet. Just like how in real life there's no way to magically understand someone the moment you meet them, developing all the pieces of your character and understanding their nature is a process that requires time and patience.

This is a tool that I've used to understand my characters, and I hope it's helpful to you too. (I adapted this from a sermon my pastor taught so I can't claim it as my own.)


Think about someone you're close to, someone who you remember meeting. What did you notice first? The way they look? The way they dress? How they talk?

I have a friend whose clothing is always very coordinated and put together. The shoes match the purse, the hair is always styled, that kind of thing. But that's not who she is, right? That's just how she looks on the outside. Those are just labels.

Labels can be very helpful to readers. Having one thing that "tags" a character can help a reader keep all the characters straight. "Oh, this is the character who wears too much eyeliner/has a scar shaped like a lightning bolt/speaks with a French accent."

Labels are a great place to start—we just want to make sure to dig deeper too.


If you spend more time with someone, you start to observe how they act. Are they nice to someone's face, but then talk badly behind their back? When they have to wait for something, what do they do? If they have a day off, how do they choose to spend it? What do they laugh at? Are conversations always about them, or do they show an interest in others?

To continue with my example from above, my very coordinated friend is a very articulate and thoughtful person. She is always careful about the words she uses, and she expects the same from those around her.

We want to be intentional with the ways our characters act. This can be difficult, especially in a first draft. I'm always fumbling around that first time through, but you want to be asking, "What seems logical to my character? What would they do now?"

To create thoughtful actions, however, we need to delve into our characters thoughts;


When we've spent a lot of time with someone, we learn how they think. It's why you know what your best friend is going to say before the words are out of his or her mouth.

One time my very coordinated friend and I had plans to go to a party together. She had given a lot of thought to how she should dress and wanted to know what I planned to wear. When I said jeans, she expressed concern that this might not be a jeans kind of event due to it being held in a nicer part of town. But when we arrived, women were wearing all kinds of different things. Jeans, skirts, slacks. My friend said to me, "I guess I didn't need to be so worried. You know, I've lived here a while now, but sometimes I still feel like I'm a country girl who doesn't belong."

Her expressing these thoughts made it all click into place—how she strives to be articulate, how she's always so thoughtful about what she wears. Those actions are born out of these kinds of thoughts.

And how we think is born out of what's stored in our hearts.


Of course we're not talking about the literal heart here, but the spirit of a person. Who they are in their raw state.
Many different truths can be planted in the heart, and some of them aren't "truths" at all, but rather lies that we believe about ourselves. The belief that our parents love us unconditionally plants a truth of security, but being abandoned by a parent would plant a different truth, wouldn't it?

Sometimes painful circumstances or toxic relationships cause lies to get lodged in there. Lies like, "I'm a bad person." Or, "People will always let you down."

How to apply it all:

When you're working with your characters, you could either start at the labels and work inward to the heart. Or you can start at the heart and work from the inside out.

Let's take a look at how this works, and I'll use me as an example:

Heart: My parents always encouraged me to write. They supported me verbally and with actions. This embedded security and confidence in my heart in regards to my writing.

Thoughts: Growing up, I would think, "Someday I'll be published. The book I'm working on now could be it." Yes, I had doubts sometimes, but because of the ways my parents had deposited security and confidence into my spirit, my thoughts were predominately positive. Even during setbacks.

Actions: I wrote a lot. At home. At school. On vacations. I did this because I believed it would matter.

Labels: Because people saw me writing, they thought of me as "a writer."

Now let's try it with a character we're almost all familiar with. In The Hunger Games, Katniss's father died suddenly. Her mother became a shell of herself, blocking out the world and her two daughters. This embedded fear in Katniss. (Heart.) The fear made Katniss think, "I can't depend on my mother. If I want to survive, I'll have to do something." (Thoughts.) Because of this, Katniss teaches herself to find food. She learns to take care of her family. (Actions.) Being good at taking care of her family means people think of Katniss as being strong and self-sufficient. (Labels.)

Next week we're going to talk about situations where this cycle breaks down and how to develop change in a character at the heart level.

Want to try with your characters? We'd love to see the results in the comments section!


  1. I've never heard of this before and it sounds like such a neat way of discovering your character! I'll have to do this for my WIP's MC today. Thanks for the post, Mrs. Morrill.

    1. Sure! It can be really useful for unlocking other characters in your novel too.

  2. What a fun exercise! I love the illustration, too. Pinning this so I can save it for future reference.


    Tessa Emily Hall

    1. Thanks, Tessa! Excited to have you on the blog tomorrow!

  3. Lately I've become more aware that how we decide to introduce our characters should say a lot about who they are (giving the reader a label for them). And then as the story progresses it's our job as the writer to do just this, getting the reader to finally understand the character's heart.
    I have a great appreciation for this post. Thanks for giving me the warm fuzzy feeling and reminding me why I truly love getting to know a new character.


  4. I really appreciate this post!! The idea is ingenious and I am going to apply it immediately to my process. Thank you Stephanie!

  5. Yay! I love doing little exercises like these. This is perfect since i just got back to my NaNo WIP that I haven't touched in over a month.

    Labels: despite living in the magical Reden Wald, Rupen looks a lot like the evil human who attack the forest. Actions: Rupen defends the Reden Wald and shows his loyalty to try and overcome the negative vibes he gets from everyone but Mother Ingrith(the leader). Thoughts: Rupen tries to think positive, but as he grows older, he can't help but wonder why he's different or where his actual home is. Heart: Rupen believes that he's found his place, but deep down, he know's he's different and that makes him worry for his home and his future (and later, if he's on the right side of the "war"). that probably made little sense, but it really helped me. Thanks so much!


  6. I LOVE THIS POST:) It's had great timing for me, as I've started a new project with a friend of mine. It's our first time working together, and the large central cast, sixteen (the post-apocalyptic setting required us to create expendables), is going to be quite a handful. I'm up for the challenge, but I have been concerned about creating 3D characters with so many. Really needed this:)

    1. That's a very large cast! Labels will be extra important to help out readers with remembering everyone. Good luck!

  7. Oh my gosh this is SUCH perfect timing! I'm starting a project and this is a great way to get me to learn about my characters... Thank you so much!

  8. Heh, I'd never thought about it like this before, but this is a fantastic exercise. Thanks so much for sharing it! *scurries off to work on it with all her characters*