12 November 2012

craft tip monday 11/12: getting to know your characters inside & out

"Getting to Know Your Characters Inside & Out"
One of my favorite parts of writing fiction is getting into the heads of my characters. Before the novel is plotted and outlined, before I develop a sense of what will happen, and when, and why, I first plunge headfirst into the realm of my main character’s lives. Figuring out who they are, where they’ve been, what they love and hate, and so forth, leads me into the writing process with not only a better sense of what should happen to these characters but also a handful of phenomenal “imaginary friends” to live and grow with as the draft gets written.

Before NaNoWriMo starts, usually at least a month ahead of time, I will pull out all my favorite character development tools and start figuring out who my main characters are. This year, unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to do it before things got started. So, in the midst of putting together what I hope is a working plot and an engaging narrative, I’m wandering along with a handful of characters (actually, at least fifteen of them) who must slowly be figured out as we go along. (And yes, I say “we” because when I write fiction I am literally living with these people; they invade my brain as much as I invade their worlds.)

And so, I’ll assume I’m not the only one a little bit behind when it comes to figuring out who characters are that will drive a NaNoWriMo plot. Whether you’re doing NaNoWriMo or simply working on a novel, or wondering how to develop characters even if you haven’t started a story yet, this post is all about sharing some of my personal tools for developing characters who seem as real as my next door neighbors … if not more so (let’s face it: I’ll talk more to fictional characters than real people for the rest of November)!

Below, you’ll find links and previews of five of my character development tools, with quick descriptions of what each is for. Click on the title (in red) to access (and/or download) the actual document!

CHARACTER FREE WRITES: Before you even name a character or plot her into a novel, it’s a good idea to get a “feel” for her. That’s exactly what this activity is for … figuratively and literally. This activity engages a character in the early stages of his development through the five senses, plus a “sixth” sense. Each prompt is meant to help you get that feel for who the character is on the basest of levels.

CHARACTER INTERVIEW PREP: Using some of the toughest interview questions, this activity aims to guide a writer into a character’s voice. The questions should be answered by the character, not the author. This activity notes an alternative way to use these questions, namely as a basis for a “filler scene” or two or develop dialogue between a main character and a friend, colleague, etc.

CHARACTER PROFILE: This is a full character profile, including the character’s name, physical attributes, likes, background, and more. The profile is aimed at helping you go even deeper into who your character is and what motivates him or her. This profile can be answered by the author, but I love filling it out as the character.

CHARACTER QUESTIONNAIRE: This questionnaire includes 40 questions that really aim you at the heart of your character’s persona and head space. The questions should be answered as the character would answer them. The instructions also note that if a character wouldn’t answer a question (you may get a better sense of what your character is willing to share and what he’s not, or what kinds of questions she thinks are just idiotic), you can still have her/him respond with their objections; this helps maintain the character’s voice, and let’s you “see” what he/she is like when irritated, annoyed, hiding, playful, and so forth.

CHARACTER RESUME: I load up my laptop with fun new fonts for this one. This prompt asks you to actually write a resume for a character. Figuring out how that character presents him or herself professionally can be helpful in engaging the character on a slightly different level than the informal approaches the other prompts and activities allow. Then again, maybe your character isn’t professional; maybe he or she would never take any seriously, even a resume. The way the resume is compiled can still tell you a lot about that character. There’s an example of what I mean included, from another novel project I’ve been working on!

Enjoy these, and engage them as you see fit. Adapt them if you need to, and above all else … Happy Writing!

What are your favorite ways to get into your characters' heads? How do you figure out who they are, where they've come from, where they're going, and beyond? Share your thoughts, tips, and tools in the comments below!


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  1. Khara, thanks for the great tips and downloads! For me, used to writing poetry, the novel is a challenge--these resources will be such a great help!

    1. I'm glad for that, Patricia! I have so much fun with these; I hope you will, too. One caution: Maybe it's just my bizarre imagination, but sometimes the trouble isn't getting into the character's head ... it's getting them back out of mine! Good luck!


Thank you so much for your comments! Please feel free to share your thoughts here; I look forward to engaging in conversation with you!

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