Sunday, December 17, 2006

Spending Time with Your Characters

A character comes to mind, or you call one forth or start to sketch one out. Maybe you start telling their story and you find gaps and holes begin to pop up, or the character floats grayly in a fog and eludes your vision. How do you get to know them better?

When I first tackled writing a novel, I found that simply telling the story only carried me so far. I had to take occasional rest stops to get to know my characters. The story would grind to a halt because I didn't really know their history as well as I needed to.

What was their childhood like? Where did they grow up? Who is their family? What do they want? Has it changed? What is their job? How do they dress? What little stories and memories do they carry around? What makes them laugh?

I believe there are no pointless questions to ask about character, because you never know what little details may pop into the story later and give your reader that extra measure of reality.

Sometimes, I sketched out a history. Sometimes, I retold a crucial scene from the perspective of a character I needed to understand better. Sometimes, I had other characters describe the person in question.

So I ask again, what do you do to spend time with your characters? Ever met a character you couldn't stand? Did you keep him or her and make yourself get to know them? Or did you decide they were better left undisturbed?


  1. How do I get to know characters... Usually I work backwards, starting with a scene or a plot, then try to figure out what motivated them to make certain decisions. Reverse-engineering, I guess.

    I have had to do a major sitdown with a character more than once, like a full-blown interview. The results are interesting. I often move such characters to a place where I can better utilize them, even to a different story.

    Sometimes it even feels like being an agent. "Y'know, I really thought that project was gonna work for you. That's okay. I know what you need. I've got a sword & sorcery deal. It's getting kinda dreary, so I want to go in there and stir things up. Give a little exposition, steal a few scenes, whatever you want. Just have fun with it. I can get you in today. Whaddaya say?"

  2. I love the idea of being the character's agent - finding the right home for them. Also, like the concept of the interview. There is such a back and forth between writer and characters. We have an idea, and as we work on it, we discover it takes us in a new direction, then we pull it a little to one or another side, then it shows us something new, and so on.


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