Know Your Characters

I just spent an hour writing one paragraph, and I might end up deleting all of that. Why? Because I’m writing it from the point of view of a character I don’t really know. He’s in a bar—not an elegant one, but a hole-in-the-wall type—drinking to forget something. What? What is he trying to forget? Why?

I really don’t know. I know he’s going to gain some important information while he’s in this bar, and the man he’s talking to is going to end up dead in a few hours, but that’s it. I haven’t developed the who/why/what of this character. I’m wasting time, and since this character will be a main character in the story, I’d better figure out who he is.

First step for me will be to take a walk (the dog needs one) and simply think about the character. I know basically where the story is headed, so what abilities do I need this character to have? What sort of occupation will allow him to be a part of this story? What weaknesses will he have and how will those affect the story?

I have a several choices on ways to “flesh him out,” so to speak. I can simply mind-map him by putting his name in the center of a blank piece of paper, drawing a circle around his name, and then start jotting down anything I can think of to describe him: people he knows, jobs he’s done, strengths, weaknesses, etc. From that scattering of ideas, I should begin to picture the man.

Mind Mapping

Or, I could do a detailed character sheet: Name, age, physical characteristics, schooling, where lives/lived, likes/dislikes, job(s), and so on. (I usually get bored halfway through one of those, but they are handy to have when I forget a detail, and they can always be added to along the way.)

Or I could do a character interview. I need to be in a quiet place to do that so I can imagine I’m actually talking to the character and letting the character talk to me. I’ve found I often learn things I hadn’t thought of by using this method. Of course, non-writers think you’re crazy if you tell them your character told you all this.

If you’re interested, here are a few sites that talk about different ways to develop characters.

Now I need to get to work and talk to my characters.



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12 Responses to Know Your Characters

  1. I almost never “develop” a character first. Sounds weird, I know. Not that I don’t have a basic idea – but – I don’t want to know “everything” because I want the READER to wonder also, and I have a tendency to give away too much too soon – so I learn the background(s) of my character(s) and their goals and motivations as I write. I don’t even know what will happen in the story, or often not even in the next chapter. I am probably the most extreme “Pantster” out there.

    • Maris Soule says:

      As long as it works (and it does for you), don’t change your method. Often my character change “characteristics” as I go along, but I have discovered I save a lot of staring into space time if I have a general idea of a character’s what and why.

  2. Susan Payne says:

    Maris, you are correct about non-writers thinking you’re crazy when you tell them your character said this or that or won’t do it your way. I made out a sheet w/ character’s description, basic job, title, relationship w/others but don’t physically use it. Just in my mind so I know them. Probably will come back and bite me if a secondary character comes back for their story. Good information and always fun to learn how another writer does things.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Where I have trouble, Susan, is when I think a book is going to be a stand-alone and then I decide to write a sequel. That character sheet helps me remember some of the basics, like where she went to school or his sister’s name.

  3. Melissa Keir says:

    Wonderful post about characters and you give some great insight into how to create some amazing ones!

  4. HiDee Ekstrom says:

    I like that you use a variety of ways to get to know your characters. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Constance Bretes says:

    Hi Maris, I used a few different suggestions from others to know my characters, and they worked pretty good, but I also have just created the characters as I go. I just did it this way with a Christmas story I just finished the first draft with.
    For me, I think it’s a matter of how complex the story is going to be. A Christmas romance story will probably not need a detailed character description as much as a murder romance mystery, as long as I know the character more than the readers do.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Good point, Constance. You’re right. For a short story or novella, knowing a great deal about each character may not be all that important, but for a romantic saga or a mystery, the more the writer knows going into the story, the easier to plant clues or create interrelationships with characters.

  6. Hi Maris,

    If I’m writing a novel, I have to live with the main characters for a long time before I sit down to write. They literally talk to me at quiet times and I get a sense of who and what they are. Before I write, I set out a character sheet and a rough plot outline which is naturally subject to change and modification as the novel develops. This works for me. But every writer must find what works best for them.

    • Maris Soule says:

      You are so right, Jacqueline. What works for you may not work for me. Or, what works for one story may not work for the next. There are no rules, other than use what works