Writing Tip: Getting to know your characters (and people too)

Every good reader knows fictional people are as real as the flesh and blood ones walking by in the street outside. In a way, fictional people are more real because we know them so well.

If the writing is good, we know what makes them tick, what they love, what they fear. We spend so much time with them, we know what they’re thinking even when the chapter is told from a different character’s POV.

We root for them, and cringe with them, and rejoice when they win the day. We feel so closely tied to them, closing the book often feels a bit like saying good-bye to a good friend.

This companionship is one of the great joys of reading fiction. But before a reader can enjoy this intense friendship with a character, the writer must first do the hard, time-consuming work of getting to know the character much more deeply and with more intimacy.

How a character first comes to a writer is a mystery. It lies at the intersection of a problem and a place. We writers get to mulling and thinking and then something like magic happens. A face rises up out of the fog of our ponderings. If we’re lucky, a few definable characteristics appear. A scar, a limp, a lisp, a sarcastic sense of humor. Maybe our fictional character is a fighter. Maybe he or she is a consummate under dog. Maybe a coward who needs strength. Maybe a broken soul who needs healing.

Height, weight, and eye color aren’t critical. Yet. But they will be. In the meantime we can play with it. A character who comes to us as a wisp of a girl (maybe because of what we’re reading at the time?) can easily morph into a kick-butt-and-take-names Tae Kwon Do expert as the story develops, and the writer gets to know the character.

The question is this: how does this vague, shadowy, gelatinous idea become a concrete person whose paper and ink existence may as well be flesh and blood in the heart and mind of a dedicated reader?

There are three things a writer can do to get to know their characters, and I learned them, oddly enough, during my first few weeks of teaching English at a Korean Hogwan.

A writer staring down a cast of half-formed characters is eerily similar to a teacher looking out at a sea of faces on the first day of school. If said teacher happens to be in a place like Korea, there is a disconcerting sameness to the features looking back at her. With little variation in hair color, skin tone, and facial structure, as well as a seemingly insurmountable language barrier, no small effort is required in getting to know them.

These things have bridged the gap for me, between my students as well as my fictional characters.

  1. Be intentional about spending time with them.

At school this means arriving early, and letting them teach me Korean words for nose, ear, hair, etc., and letting them play games on my phone (there is a universal language of fun and games). It’s talking, as much as we are able, and showing them that I enjoy their company and their culture during those precious minutes before class begins. Slowly, their personalities are beginning to emerge and I’m seeing the uniqueness in the smile, the sense of humor, the way they relate to their friends, and their fondness for Piano Tile.

At the keyboard this means pausing, fingers poised to type, but waiting. It’s imagining, day-dreaming, staring out the window while you walk with your character through an event, and watching how he or she handles it. Maybe it’s a journal entry, written in the voice of your character, but a piece that will never make it into your WIP. It’s just for exploring, learning, and being surprised at what develops. It’s time–a lot of time–away from the actual writing work, but it’s necessary to fully know this fictional person.

2. Ask questions–and be genuinely interested in the answers.

I have one class of preteens who have been taking English for several years. These students are beyond chanting phrases and memorizing vocabulary. They’re learning how to converse. It’s hard for them. English is so complicated. They’re shy and unsure of their pronunciation. I draw them out by asking open-ended questions.

Tell me about your family. What does your dad do? What books do you enjoy? What famous person would you like to be friends with? What countries would you like to visit? What do you want to study after high school? What do you hope to be?

The things I discover about them are fascinating. Their answers reveal how deeply they think about their future, their maturity level, their sense adventure, or conversely, their sense of isolation.

Answers are just as telling for fictional people. If you want them to seem real, you must know the answers to some tough, personal questions that real people think about. Ask your character and let him or her answer–on paper. Don’t worry if the details will never make it into your WIP. It’s enough that you know them. This knowledge will bleed into the narrative and add layers and dimensions, transforming your character into a flesh and blood person.

What do you hope for? How do you feel about God? What is your biggest regret? What is your ideal outcome? What is your biggest insecurity? What do you pray for? How do you make sense of past events? What would you change about yourself? What is your favorite physical feature?

3. Stick with them until you learn their secrets.

Everyone has them. The two girls who share lip gloss and giggle in the back of the classroom. The boy with his chin on his fist, who never utters a peep, not even with the enticement of a star by his name. The boy who forgets his book every. single. day. and looks so defeated when he comes in, late again, and admits he hasn’t done his homework. Even the girl whose penmanship and English grammar are perfect, whose hair is perfectly combed, whose back is perfectly straight, and whose feet are perfectly crossed beneath the desk. They all have secrets, wonderful little idiosyncrasies that make them unique, dark, funny, tragic, and profoundly interesting. I can’t tell you how much I look forward to the coming months, as I learn slowly, by increments, what makes each student uniquely tick.

Fictional people have no less potential to harbor character-exposing secrets. Stick with them. Don’t move on until they’ve divulged something surprising, hair-raising, or plot-twisting. It will happen–I promise–after you’ve thrown them into the calamities of your fictional world, spent enough time with them, and asked the right questions of them.

Have you tried any of these techniques for getting to know your characters? Please let the writers at Quills know what techniques you use, and what surprising discoveries you’ve made. We’d love to hear from you.



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