Getting to Know Your Characters

We would never expect to know everything about a friend after only a few meetings. It takes months and years to really get to know a person. Even then, they might surprise us. If they are multi-layered and realistic, why should the characters in our stories be any different?

Our familiars

I imagine that we all have characters who are easier to get to know. Perhaps they are our imaginary soulmates. One of my characters showed up in full presence. From the moment I met Leah, I knew all about her. It was like we’d been friends in high school. This has only happened to me once. It was a delight when she showed up. Naturally, I thought her story would be easier to write, but it wasn’t. It took me a long time to find a family she might live in and a story she might occupy.

The closed-mouthed and slippery

Most of my characters, and the ones I feel the deepest compassion for, are closed-mouthed and slippery. They refuse to make anything easy for me. I need to listen to their voice, stalk them as they go about their everyday life, and put them into trying situations before they will let me begin to see their true nature. Sometimes I know them most by all they are not, or the shadow they cast. They are that evasive. Yet, the hunt continues.

Exploring and patience

Every writer has their own reason for going back to the desk. For me, it is the characters. The harder they are to get to know, the more I care about their story. I’m especially drawn to characters who try to hide their inner wounds.

So enough of all that. Yes, those difficult-to-know characters are the most intriguing. This is no great surprise. How can we get to know them? That’s the question.

Interrogation

Sometimes I ask my character a standard series of questions. The Proust Questionnaire is a fun place to start. I go back to it often and use it especially in the early stages of getting to know a character. I find it gets me thinking about pet peeves and embarrassing failures and lineage—the inner workings that drive stories.

Deep diving

Although questions are useful, for me the only way to get into the inner sanctum of a character is through free-writing. I start a file with an irreverent name like “crap” or “plan for world domination”. I open the file and I write without allowing myself to stop no matter what drivel may result. Within the bulk of flowing ideas, there are often pearls. The best material that comes this way is highly sublimated and visual like a dream. Sometimes when I try free-writing, the results are good straight away. A lot of the time, I need to go back to the “crap” file or the “plan for world domination” several days in a row before anything good shows up.

Quality time

A fun exercise is to write your character into everyday experiences, such as washing the dishes, going for a swim, taking a bath, or making soup. Think of it like spending quality time with a friend you want to get to know better. You may not use those scenes in your story, but your connection with the character will deepen.

Darkest secret

Another thing that helps is trying to put my finger on the character’s deepest, darkest secret. I’m not talking minor embarrassment. I’m talking about that thing the character has never admitted to anyone, maybe even themselves. We all have secrets. If I’m patient enough and lean close, if I’m lucky, my characters whisper theirs to me.

The main thing I try to remember is to have patience and to trust that the time I invest in building a relationship with my characters is worth it in the long run. When it comes to friendship, I recognize the best ones take time. It’s the same with characters.

By Debbie Bateman

I'm an innovative thinker with a practical nature and a passion for explaining complex ideas simply. This makes me a dedicated and meticulous instructional designer, curriculum writer, and plain language editor. As a bonus, I am a storyteller, fiction writer, and novel editor.

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