Writers Helping Writers: Getting into your Characters

Characters are a critical part of your story. It doesn’t matter what genre you write in, characters propel the plot forward and are what your reader relate to the most. It’s important to understand them and their motivations. After all, a story is more or less describing a character’s actions and you can’t do that unless you know what they would do or you understand their thought process.

When I write a story, I can’t get started on it unless I know who I am working with. In creating my characters, I must first know their name. I have a big baby name book that I turn to in order to find the right one. Sometimes, based on the research I’ve done, I know a character will be of a certain culture or ethnicity. That will help narrow the name search.

As soon as the name is there, it sparks an idea in my head of what they look like. You know how people will sometimes say, “She doesn’t look like a Sarah.”? Well, it’s like that in my head. Names often carry distinct looks and even personalities. If the name isn’t helping to give you a clear picture of your character, turn back to your research. What ethnicity? What culture? Where do they live? What’s the time period?

Once there’s the basic form for a character (general personality, traits, age, etc.), start asking questions and write down what comes to you. What do they like to do on their down time? Are they picky eaters? Do they have a phobia? How do they handle stress? What’s their family background? Those internet personality quizzes are also a great tool in helping understand your character. Another way to build an understanding of your characters are D&D character sheets, complete with rolling a dice for personality trait levels.

Getting to know your characters and how they interact with each other is vital to your story telling. Remember to be realistic with them. Take any and all opportunity to observe people in different settings. You can even take a Sociology class at the local college to help understand how people interact with each other and to get genuine reactions for various things. The more real you can make your characters, the stronger the story.

Sometimes your characters will develop into a voice in your head. No, you are not crazy. This can be a great tool in understanding them and getting them on the page correctly. In my experience, they will DEFINITELY let you know if something isn’t them.

Lastly, keep a page or two in your story notebook dedicated to each character. Keep track of all the information they give you, it will come in handy when you start to write!