What Are You Doing to Build a Better Character?

Photo by heckmannoleg/bigstockphoto.com

Photo by heckmannoleg/bigstockphoto.com

What do your characters truly want in life, what are they most afraid of, and what are their greatest strengths and weaknesses? What pisses them off? What brings them joy beyond measure? And how do you figure all of that out?

Some writers just know this stuff. Their characters have been whispering to them for months or years. The rest of us have to dig a little deeper to get in touch with our characters’ hearts and souls. Even if they reveal all to you, spending time to explore your characters’ terrain may yield gems that will enrich your story and deepen the bonds between your reader and characters.

The key to getting to know these elusive creatures, just like with people in real life, is to spend some quality one-on-one time with them. Below we’ve included exercises to help you collect the information you need to get to know your characters and send them walking and talking through the pages of your book.

Make a vision board

Make a physical or digital vision board on which you collect images and words that describe each of your main characters. Collect pictures of people that look like them, items they would own or covet, and places they want to live or visit. Cut pictures of out magazines, newspapers, or draw pictures to make a physical board. Use a public or private Pinterest board to keep digital pictures. Update these boards as you find new items that fit. Before you dive into a scene in which they appear, look over your characters’ boards, step into their skin, and inspire your writing.

Write a letter or diary entry

Write letters from this character to another character in your story. If the character is a villain, rival for a loved one’s affection, or a government agent, have her write her letter in that capacity. Another option is to write diary entries describing things that people who play that role might do. The villain might record the details of her latest caper; the romantic rival might wax poetic about her desire for your main character’s love; the government agent might record thoughts on her latest findings. The point is to put the character in her role, and give her free rein.

Write the character’s backstory

Take the moment your character enters the story, and write back from there. What happened in the hour before that moment? What about the days, weeks and months prior? Go as far back in time as required to to get a feel for who this person is, what brought her into your story, and what her plans are.

Use people you know

You can use your friends and family as stand-ins until your character sheds the disguise. This sounds risky, but it’s a way to get started. It allows you to touch someone real while you’re finding your way. Later, as your character develops, go back and change the name and parts that don’t fit. Author Johnny B. Truant likens this to using lighter fluid to get your fire started. As long as you burn off the fluid before you put your food on the grill, everything will be fine.

Thirty-minute sprints

Spend thirty minutes a day with your characters for a week. Put your characters in mundane or extraordinary circumstances and see how they react. Be the fly on the wall, and record your observations through free writing. Use this list of circumstances and add others you like.

  • First kiss
  • Eating a favorite meal
  • First job
  • Learning to drive a car
  • Going camping
  • Clothes shopping
  • Visiting her parents
  • Getting haircut
  • Stuck in traffic
  • Receiving news of the death of a loved one

Let us know how it went

What did you discover about your fictional friends? Do you have other means of getting to know your characters? We invite you to share your methods and the results of your exploration in the comments below.