“Okay… tell me a little about yourself.”
“Um… how am I supposed to do that?”
“Hmm…. good question.”
How does a writer get to know their character? It’s a bit like interviewing someone with amnesia. You have some context, but they know nothing about themselves, so you have to try and fill in the blanks with them.
And yes, with them–because, inevitably, characters will seem to take on a life of their own. I remember coming across an interview one time where J.K. Rowling once said that S.P.E.W. (the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare) was Hermione’s thing. She never intended for the character to be so passionate about elfish rights, but it ended up being a pretty decent plot point, even contributing to her and Ron finally kissing. (*insert awww*)
A character taking a bit more control (read: an idea that a writer has growing more than they intended) is actually a sign of a fleshed-out, complex character. If, the more you write them, the more they grow–sometimes even in ways you don’t imagine–that means you’re doing something right.
But you have to start somewhere. Like I said before: You’ll usually begin with some sort of context. For example, if you’re writing an action/suspense novel, chances are your character will be a bit of a tough customer. Or if you’re writing a coming-of-age story, your character might be a bit awkward and needing to grow into some confidence.
The next step, for me, is to establish some basics: Age, appearance, body type, etc. Again, like the interview example, you start with what you can see, what’s on the surface.
After that, it gets really fun. You start asking questions. First, more superficial stuff: What does your bedroom look like? What’s in your purse/wallet right now?
And from there, as you start to have more material to work with (as your interviewee starts to “remember”). You can now dive into deeper questions: What is your greatest fear? Who do you admire? What do you wish you could change about yourself?
Eventually, you start to have more than just answers. You start to form the actual memories that make this character who they are. For instance, maybe their greatest fear is water. Why? Did they almost drown once? Did someone they care about drown? What was that day like? What emotions did they experience? What emotions are they still experiencing?
Eventually, you have a rough outline of an entire life and you know what makes your character tick.
Now just do that with all the other major characters in your book, and you’re ready to start writing.
Yeah… it can be a lot of work.
Of course… that’s not the only way to develop a character. I’ve found it’s the most useful for me, but every writer (and every story) is different. Sometimes, the best thing to do is just start writing. You may begin a draft writing a character in a certain way, but as the story goes on, realize he or she is coming across too weak, unrealistic, unlikable, etc. So maybe you trash that draft (which always hurts; I once trashed a draft that was 100 pages). And so you start writing again, learning from your past mistakes, and making the character (and your story) more engaging.
I’ve done that before, too: Just dove right in and let the story just unfold and the characters interact naturally. However, I’ve found that when I do that, I tend to end up with unfinished manuscripts.
Of course, you can combine the two techniques: “Interview” a little, but leave some personality open for creative spontaneity.
Interviewing and free-styling, though, are only two techniques. I’ve heard that some writers actually start out by drawing their characters, getting to know them from the outside in as they bring them to life on paper. Others will spend some time actually trying to think and act like their character. Maybe they’ll clean the house or go run errands, all while trying to stay in that character’s mindset. Others will even use actors and actresses as a springboard to imagining their character. “He’s kind of a combination of Chris Hemsworth and Ryan Reynolds…”
There’s no right or wrong way to discover who your character really is. And, like I’ve said before, every writer and every story is different. What works when you’re writing a sci-fi series, might not work for an angsty YA novel. Or what worked when you were writing in college might not “click” when you’re an adult with a full-time job. We change, our stories change, so our methods must also change.
What method works best for you when you’re writing a story? Is there a new method you’ve tried recently that really worked for you? Tell me more in the comments!