How to Get to Know Your Characters

writing-in-a-journal
I’ve gotten so far into my first draft of BLOOD AND WATER that I know my characters better than I know myself. I can tell you who like what and why and how, who belongs with whom, how he got that scar, how she learned to drive… you name it, I’ve probably got an explanation for it.

Today, though, I realized I didn’t know my characters as well as I thought. My story came grinding to a halt in the middle of a scene. I was paralyzed. I couldn’t write. What was wrong with me?

Luckily, I remembered a post my friend and critique partner Rae had written about interviewing your characters. My other friend, Stephen, recommends writing journals to figure out your character’s thoughts and feelings. I had nothing to lose. I decided to try both.

For me, the journal exercise seemed to be the most effective. The interviews were nice, but I wondered how much of it I was leading, rather than letting happen organically (that sound absolutely crazy unless you are a writer). Without spoiling anything, I’d like to share some things I learned about my characters as a result of this effort.

Before starting, the character I knew the least about was Sean. He’s hotheaded, explosive, and prone to melancholy. I’ve never written anyone was moody as him. At the same time, Sean can be downright charming around his friends. I didn’t know how to reconcile both sides of his personality.

That’s where the character journal came in. I put on my novel playlist, closed my eyes and thought for a minute, and then opened them and got to work. My fingers flew over the keyboard, keeping time with the music. I forced myself not to hesitate. I didn’t let myself edit. After all, these were not my thoughts and feelings – they belonged to Sean, and who was I to censor them?

Most of Sean’s entry contained explicit language. That’s because it’s a diatribe against the unpleasant reality of the narrative (vague to keep from spoiling). While writing, I learned that he isn’t selfish at all, as I had assumed. He isn’t angry for the sake of being angry, either. So many people he loves have died already, and he can’t bear the thought of losing anyone else. He doesn’t want to be alone, and whenever he thinks he might be, he lashes out in frustration.

Moreover, he doesn’t want anyone to worry about him, so he masks his fear with anger.He’s loyal and would do anything to make his friends happy; he’s an absolute people-pleaser, which makes his behavior even more problematic. He doesn’t see that his actions are driving away the people he loves most in the world, the only ones who can save him from being alone. He feels them pulling away, and he doesn’t know why. He’s absolutely terrified. Who wouldn’t be?

Once I finished writing, I was ready to dive back into the novel and finish the scene. Armed with understanding and a renewed appreciation for my characters, I finished my session in record time and had to fight the urge to keep going. I wanted to end things on a high note, feeling confident in my abilities again.

The next time you can’t wrap your head around a character, try talking to them. Ask them how they feel, what they think, and why they do what they do. If you don’t want to come up with questions, feel free to let them vent. Little by little, they’ll reveal themselves to you.

How do you get to know your characters? What do you think of this technique?

Tweet tweet:

.@brianawrites struggled to get a grasp on her characters. Then, she discovered this helpful technique. (Click to tweet)

15 Comments

  • Kristen A Kieffer

    Woah! I am in love with the idea of journaling for your characters! I feel like I simultaneously know so much and so little about my several of my characters, and journaling from their perspectives sounds like the perfect way to really, truly get inside their heads. I can’t wait to give it a try!

    • Briana Morgan

      You should try it – I thought I knew a lot about everyone, but this totally changed my perspective on quite a few characters. 😀

  • Felecia Efriann

    This is a really neat technique of getting to know your characters. I have been trying to figure out how to better understand my own in the story I am working on. I will have to try this and the other technique you mentioned and see what unfolds. Thanks for sharing your insights. 🙂

  • tianna

    thank you so much for this! IT’s come just in time. I’m writing my first film script EVER and although I consider myself a writer, I’ve never written a story in this format before. It’s been difficult trying to discover what my characters should say in a scene, what should happen for other things to happen, and how I want it to end. Do you have any other tips? lol. My biggest problem (at the moment) is finding the right words for each character’s unique voice and figuring out how I want to end it as well as how the characters get to that decided end.

    • Briana Morgan

      The interview/journal exercise will help you find the characters’ voices! As for plotting, you’ll have to go with whatever works best for you. Some people like to know how the story will end, and others don’t. Try a couple different techniques and see what works best for you.

  • JazzFeathers

    Anything that helps getting to know a character better is valuable, in my opinion. I like character synopsis, I use it a lot. But I also like character interview, it’s such fun :-)I’ve never tried journals, but I suppose it’s fun too, so I think next time I’ll try that too.

  • Emily Faithe

    I am in love with this. This is a process that only truly makes sense once you’ve done it. It still amazes me how someone I created takes on a life of its own that I have to then figure out!

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