Saturday, January 1, 2011

Know Your Characters

As writers, knowing our characters is a must. It's not a: "Eh, I think I got an idea." or "Well, I'm pretty sure that's what he/she would say."

That's a half assed effort that will only produce the same response from your readers, which will in turn, cost you them.

I don't know how many books I've picked up, where I've started to read and haven't gone beyond the first couple chapters--sometimes not even that far--because I didn't believe the characters. There wasn't any depth to them. No personality. It was like the writer didn't even know who they were, and yet they wrote the story anyway.

So. How do you get to know your characters?

Answer: Become them.
I know that sounds like some cheesy line from a bad movie but it is so true!

You can't just imagine what your characters would be like if they lived and breathed. You have to become them. Act the way they would, hear their voice in your ears--their accent or tone. React to things the way they would, move in the same manner. It is this way that you will discover things about your character you never knew. Or wouldn't have been able to think of just jotting things down in your 'character outline' at your desk.

It's a little like acting. True, your family may think you're a tad insane if/when you do this. Mine do. But sometimes it takes a little action to bring your writing to life.

Here's an exercise.

Let's say you're writing about a man who has just lost his family.

This is where you must bring your character to life. Perhaps in private. You don't want to scare the hell out of your family or friends. ;)

Think of yourself as this man. (ladies, pretend) This happy man. You have everything you ever wanted. A beautiful wife and two beautiful kids. Maybe even a dog named Rufus, and you all live in a nice little house in a subdivided neighborhood. You have a great job, great friends.

Now imagine that being taken away from you. Your wife is driving your kids home from school one day when another driver runs a red light--not seeing it because they were distracted momentarily--sending your family minivan spinning out of control upon impact...Straight into a telephone pole. With not enough time to stop, another car hits the side, killing them instantly.

Feel the tears stream down your cheeks as your hand clutches the phone at your ear. Dead. All of them...Gone. You'll no longer see the smiles on your children's faces. Hear their steady, peaceful breathing when you check on them at night. Never again feel the warmth of your wife's body beneath your arms, or hear your name on her lips.

Can you feel the grief? The slow anger building inside you at the injustice of it all? It isn't fair, is it? You're a good person. Why did this happen to you? To them?

Did you do it? Were you able to hear the anguish in your cries as you fell to your knees in despair? Now...How much better do you think your description of this character's life will be after having gone through (in a way) what he's gone through?

Poetry, while the character can often become objects, can also have this applied to it. In this case, however, you may have to become the object. Say you're writing a poem about a....Log. A lonely log that after many years, has become embedded in the soil beside a peaceful lake. Perhaps there's a willow over it? What things could this log have seen to make it so lonely? Or maybe it's not the log that is lonely, but the place itself, and this log is simply a testament to that fact. Lovers maybe? Lovers who carved their initials in its side and used to meet under this willow but have long since been absent? The concept is the same, only the subject is different.

I hope this has helped in some way or at the very least, given you something to think about.

Happy Writing!


  1. I've often tried the actig execise for certain scenes--mostly arguments and dialogue. Sometimes, I'll act it out if there's space. I want to hear how the voice breaks, where the inflections are, imagine how the expressions move across the face.

    I am very much semi-schizophernic when I do this. Family thinks I'm nuts. LOL. Course I only do this in private. But it's a very...relaxing excersize.

    Sometimes, I get so into it, I almost--for a split SECOND--forget who I really am.

    Weird, eh?

    - Maddie

  2. I do believe there is an actress inside you Madelaine :) No, not weird LOL. I do that too. Sometimes I spend an entire day trying to act how my character would, just too get a feel of his/her mannerisms and quirks. What makes them tick. I love what you said about the arguments--where their voice breaks. Now there is something I need to try.

  3. I love doing this, especially when the two of us are trying to figure out Jack's character in HBW :) It's fun. I'm considering writing again. Not sure.

  4. Oh you should write again, Rue. And yes, acting out those 'Jack' conversations are very fun. Glad you liked this blog. :)

  5. I really loved this post. Found your blog while searching blogger for writing articles. I liked this post because it was easy to read and understand. No big words I can't pronounce it's very straight to the point.

  6. Really? I can't believe my bog popped up! Yay!
    I'm glad you liked it enough to stick around.



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