Unlocking Your Characters

No matter what type of story you’re writing, you must know your characters. Much like your setting, they affect every single aspect of your story. Whether they are good or bad, the characters are the central figures of any novel. You can say your book is plot-driven more so than character but a single fact will always remain: your characters influence everything that happens.

I wasn’t really all that into understanding my characters until I
realized the benefits and saw the difference it made. Understanding your
characters helps you understand the story. You can’t really challenge
your characters and show readers what they’re made of if you don’t know
the answers yourself.

 

This doesn’t mean you need to know your characters before your plot. In fact, I would suggest that it’s better to know the central plot first, but that’s beside the point. It isn’t enough to know their physical attributes or the static adjectives with which you desire to describe them. Characters don’t usually translate from mind to page the way we hope, just like the majority of a story doesn’t either (not the first time at least). The real skill of writing is interpreting what actions belong to your character and what actions you are forcing upon them. What got lost in translation?

The best technique for getting to know your characters is having an in-depth conversation with them. Most people call this interviewing but I’ve always seen interviewing as something in which you ask specific questions. A conversation however, allows your character to speak freely and without the bonds of the story. Follow the conversation wherever it goes and allow the character’s attitude to shape your novel. Ask the first questions that come to mind after you write their response.

It’s truly amazing how their voices comes through and you end up learning more about them than you would have guessed. A one-on-one conversation shows details and quirks that you probably won’t otherwise discover. A great question to start off with is to ask them what they think of a specific character that you know they have strong feelings about (good or ill). This is the perfect place to begin because it’s a concrete question you already know the answer to, but you’re allowing the character to answer in it in their own voice.  It gets the conversation going.

It might be tempting to throw out probing questions and force them to answer. However, despite your best efforts a character sometimes refuses to supply you with the desired answer or even a straightforward answer of any kind. Don’t force their words. If they give you some wayward response, ask your next question. You’ll actually learn more about them than if you force the response you’re hunting for.

Here’s a few lines from a conversation I held with Hector from my novel Traitors & Tyrants. This took place before I ever started writing the novel so somethings have changed but Hector’s attitude has largely remained the same, which is really the point. Details might change but a character’s personality is their heart.

Me: What is the Dark Realm?
Hector: My parent’s home. Demons, witches, enchantresses, and the evil from the human realm live there. It’s their world. Except for those who were exiled – it’s their prison.
Me: Who exiles people to the Dark Realm?
Hector: I don’t know.
Me: Who gets exiled there?
Hector: People like my father.
Me: What did he do to be exiled there?
Hector: Have you been listening? I would think the torture chamber reason enough.

What does this excerpt show? Is shows each question as it came to my mind. My questions were the logical response to his answers. Now, yes, I knew what the Dark Realm was but I didn’t know how much Hector knew. I also didn’t know until then that his father had been exiled there or that humans were exiled to the Dark Realm at all. (And yes, I changed the name for Dark Realm which was always just a working title.)

It’s important to realize though that your characters are going to interact different with you than they are with each other. In essence, these interviews and conversations are your characters stripped down to their very core. Therefore, you have to translate everything you learn here into a story in which the character interacts with people they hate and distrust as well as those they love and protect. What can I say? Writing is hard.

How do you get to know your characters?

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7 responses to “Unlocking Your Characters

  1. I think characters are essentially very important to a plot. I am a character driven reader and if your plot is rubbish you can still score points with me and keep me reading solely because I like your characters. Which means in my writing I strive to make the characters as strong as possible with relationships to others and very realistic. Secondary and main characters alike. I liked this post 🙂

  2. I feel like each of my characters have small differences that make the way they act/speak different. For example, the main character hides behind sarcasm. the ruder she is, the more scared she is. There's also another character who acts like a child most of the time, yet there's this wise beyond his years attitude to the way he acts. I don't really interview them. Instead, I write the same chapter in the different points of views of each of the characters. There 6 of them and it gets nuts, but at least now I have a good grip on them!

    1. I know what you mean. I wrote a couple of different scenes for my two main characters in the beginning to try and get a feel for who they were. There really isn't a substitute for writing a specific character's voice but I've found that, done right, these character conversations can achieve that in a more pure form as well as give you info about the story/world you didn't have before.

  3. I remember that writing the first draft is just the first step– you can always edit out the rambling later. This makes it easier to let the characters establish themselves and make their opinions known without losing my feel for the story. 🙂

    1. The first draft definitely teaches you a lot about your characters too. But I also find that I can deviate from who they are there too because of the plot. First draft and character interviews really go hand-in-hand for me.

  4. Characters are definitely the most important aspect of a story. Writers can say that their stories are plot driven, but the reader isn't going to care about the plot unless he/she cares about the characters. I like to interview my characters, but I also like writing journal entries from their point of view to develop them a little bit more.

    1. Journal entries are a good idea. I find that my voice can sometimes bleed into another character's though if they don't have the right personality.

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