Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How do you get to know your characters?

A writer e-mailed me to ask "What do you use to form your characters into individuals that you know everything about?"

Excellent question. Especially since these days I actually have an answer for that.

Lots of writers swear by those character profile forms you can fill out. I was very good at printing out those kinds of things, but every time I tried to fill them out, I got too bored to finish even one.

So I used to use my first draft as a way to get to know my characters. This led to lots of revisions since I didn't get the hang of my main character's voice until about halfway through. And for secondary characters, it took longer.

And then I read The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell (I know I talk about this book all the time. It's just that good.) He talks about a technique he uses where he journals for his characters. I've talked about it on here before. (Click here to read that post.)

I'm completely in love with character journaling. Sometimes it comes to me way easier than the actual novel writing does. And since I'm working on a new project right now (or, to be accurate, reworking a project that I love so much I'm never happy with the way it turns out), I'm actually doing character journals right now.

I always start with my main character. I ask them some kind of question ("How do you feel about your name?" "What's your relationship with your mom like?") and then they just take over. Usually for pages. It's particularly useful when you're trying to get in the head of the antagonist and other secondary characters. It gives them a voice of their own, motives of their own, etc. Remember, they have a story to tell too. The world doesn't revolve around your main character, regardless of what they may think.

All those other details - birthdays, a favorite color, appearance - I jot down on a spreadsheet as I write the first draft. I find those things don't really matter. Like, it's important to be consistent, but the reader cares more about your characters insides than outsides. Start there and the rest of that stuff will work itself out.

Have a writing question? E-mail me. I'm serious. Most of you apologize when you e-mail me with your questions, but I really love receiving them. Makes my life fun, and my blogging easy :)


  1. I maintain that the best part of character journaling is that it's FUN--as opposed to those profile sheets. Blech. ;-)

    I used it to get into the head of one of my heroes, who I didn't fully understand yet. I started with what the heroine had recently observed about him--that his interest was only in crops and congress, never her--and used that to branch out into WHY his interest was in the mundane, and why he avoided interest in her at all costs. Love how it turned out!

  2. Totally agree. It feels like real writing to me.

    In the same vein as what Roseanna said, I had a character who I'd labeled a feminist. Ordinarily, I never would have given it any more thought since she's a secondary character and it isn't super important to the story. But in the character journal for her, I explored why and it created this really rich back story for her. So fun.

  3. It's interesting how different writers and authors use different techniques for developing characters. For myself, I don't profile characters or do journals for them; they come into my head pre-formed and expand as I right the actual novel. Then if anything is inconsistent, I alter it during the editing process. But the journals do sound more fun, and more helpful, than profiling.

  4. How cool, Abigail! Is it main characters that come fully formed, or all characters? I usually start with a pretty clear voice for my main character, but my secondaries tend to all sound the same unless I push myself to dig deeper.

  5. I found this online which helped me get to know my characters better (I don't usually answer all questions, just the ones I feel could help me) :)