Five Ways to Get to Know Your Characters

“Character is destiny” (Heraclitus, 544-483 BC)

I took classical Greek in college. I loved it, sort of like doing word puzzles. What letter is this squiggle, what is the meaning of that series of squiggles?

One thing I learned was that spacing between words and punctuation were relatively modern conventions meant to make literacy more accessible for larger numbers of people. Since few Greeks learned to read, it was assumed they could figure out the meaning of the text. Admittedly, Greek was a highly inflected language (word endings signaled part of speech, verb tense, etc.) so an ancient Greek kid just had to attend to those things to make sense of the sentences.

I guess. I used to be a first grade teacher and later someone who worked with struggling readers, so there had to be some problems with that theory (or why invent spacing and punctuation?).

I digress. Heraclitus was a pithy kind of guy; lots of quotes are attributed to him. Like the one pictured in my post. Tammy Greenwood (latest novel, Bodies of Water), one of my session presenters at a conference I attended, used this quote as she discussed a topic many other conference sessions addressed.

At heart, a novel is about characters. The plot is just a device for showcasing their human frailties and strengths. How they struggle with life’s exigencies tests their character. The universal humanity of characters is what keeps us reading, not that they solved the problem in this book, or didn’t. It is the quest to solve the problem that reveals those aspects of the characters we can relate to, or not. How characters behave sets events in motion. The action is destined.

Greenwood said, “Getting to know your characters is your main job as a novelist.” What I heard was, until you know your characters as well as you know your best friend, you can’t reel in the reader with characters who don’t jar. That got me thinking.

Even when the reader doesn’t know what a character will do, once the action is revealed the reader knows it was an appropriate action. It was one of the roads the character could have taken on the way to resolution. And, if it is not a consistent action, the author reveals something about the character that justifies an act seemingly out of character (so to speak).

I have used lots of different strategies to get to know my characters:

  1. There are the ubiquitous character questionnaires. From eye color to greatest fear, I have filled in many of these.
  2. Sometimes I list the positive traits I want my character to demonstrate, and then carry the trait to an extreme so it is no longer so positive. For example, “caring” can become the excessive “smothering”. As I write, however, sometimes they blow the top off my planning! Sigh.
  3. Of course there is the character profile, sort of an expanded version of what you write on your Amazon author page. More details, multiple paragraphs. It’s the sort of thing a psychologist might write about you after a few visits.
  4. Another way I have approached learning my characters is with interviews. I draw up a list of questions, just as they might for a celebrity interview, and ask away.
  5. But the most productive tool I’ve used is journaling. I ask a character one question to prime the pump, like, “So why are you so impulsive?” and I let the character free-write for as long as he/she wants.

This last technique is sort of a fugue state in which the characters tell me some very odd stuff. That’s how I found out one character had been secretly pregnant and gave her baby up for adoption after considering abortion while she was still in high school. Neither her best friend nor the father knows about the pregnancy. The father doesn’t know, because she isn’t sure who the father was. Whoa! Those revelations led me to a whole subplot line I am using in three books in the series.

I love it when the character spills the beans! Sort of like what friends do after maybe one too many root beers!

In another post later on, I’ll share some of my interviews, questionnaires, and such. If you can’t wait, do an Internet search and you’ll find lots of examples of how to find out about your characters. Google “how to know your characters” and the first page alone has a plethora of questions and profiling ideas.

I am thinking about some of my WiPs that are giving me fits. In every one (so far), I am struggling because the characters are the glue holding my great story premise together, not the propelling force that will move the action forward. So, looks like I am going to be spending a lot more time in conversation with Carrie, Harlan, Alli, Maria, Lucinda, and oh, so many others. Who are these characters in their deepest hearts and parts?

Character IS destiny. Who the characters are, what they need, how they react. That is what drives the story and makes a novel compelling.

Author: Sharon Arthur Moore

Sharon Arthur Moore is an intrepid cook, who has lived in every region of the country except the Pacific Northwest and loved every single one of them.

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