Know Your Characters

Characters are the lifeblood the story. You can fabricate a setting that lives and breathes, but without characters to thrive in it, you do not have a story.

Characters without characterization are all but useless.

Don’t get me wrong: they can still carry out all the actions the story requires, bringing it from beginning to climax to end. Even the silhouette of a character –a nameless, faceless, voiceless being, can be a hero, villain, best friend, or girl next door.

Characters without characterization can do all the things fleshed out characters can.

The problem is, no one wants to read about them.

How much you need to know about your characters depends on their role in the story and in the story you want to tell. Short Story Stan may not need to be as well known as Novel Nando or Trilogy Tim.

However, while you may not need to make the reader aware of every nuance of a character’s personality, you can never know too much about your own characters, no matter how insignificant they are to the story you’re telling.

Particularly in the first draft, never discount a minor character. The main protagonist and narrative voice of my WIP novel started out as a minor character with one line of dialogue. All the same I felt like I knew him, and as I worked on draft after draft, he revealed the story needed his unique voice.

Every character has different potential, but they must have substance for it to be realized. Your protagonist may reveal they don’t really have the stuff of a protagonist, after all –but another character can always grab the lead role.

The best way to get to know a character is to write about them. Or, better yet, write as them. Have them tell a story, even if you have no plan to include it in any published work. Have the secondary character narrate the events of a chapter. Imagine what they might notice and which details might bear significance to them. In addition to revealing their personality to you, it may help you when you’re stuck on a chapter.

Once I know how a character is, I can start figuring out why they’re that way. Sometimes you know these details in different orders –but knowing one always helps you figure out the other. I find this particularly important for villains.

Here are some other ways you can learn more about your characters:

  1. Take a personality test for them. ( www.16personalities.com )
  2. Make a playlist of songs relevant to or that remind you of the character and listen to it with your eyes closed. Watch some head movies.
  3. Write dialogue as the character. (Don’t know where to start? https://www.tumblr.com/search/dialogue+prompts )
  4. Imagine how they might be had circumstances in their past been different. (If your villain is trying to eradicate all taxi drivers from existence because one ran over his soccer ball when he was little, imagine what he might be like now if the taxi driver had instead stopped, opened the door and grabbed the ball, then tossed it to him.)
  5. Write down some opinions you feel strongly about. Now detail your character’s feelings on each. (Hint: at least some of these should probably differ from yours.)
  6. Like Pinterest? Create a board for each character and pin some ‘aesthetic’ pictures. For example, imagines of bleak trailer parks and shabby motels for a deep southern nomad. Look at them whenever the character is refusing to speak to you.
  7. Fill in the small details. If the character’s job is never mentioned, figure out what it is, even if you still don’t plan to make it known. It will help you understand strengths and weaknesses, what your character knows, and how they might react to things.
  8. Imagine your story without this character. If it is more or less the same story, try giving said character a more important role.
  9. Think of some open ended questions. What would your character do if their socioeconomic status were different? What would they do if they could do anything they wanted? What if they were famous/not famous?
  10. If a character won’t speak to you, don’t worry too much. Go ahead and write them as a vague amorphous shape. As the story continues, they will make themselves known, and you can always go back and edit accordingly.

How do you get to know your characters?

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