My head is a crowded place. Lots of people hang out in there and many are clamoring to have their stories told. That said, I need to get to know most of them better before I can tell their stories. Some are very forthcoming and share everything, some are more reluctant and the “so, tell me about yourself” line, just doesn’t work. What’s a writer to do?
Ask your characters questions
The best way to get to know somebody is to ask him or her questions. When it comes to interviewing fictional characters some questions come to you based on your story but other questions aren’t so obvious. It’s the answers to questions that can be nuggets of gold for your story.
The best place to start is with the basics.
- What do they want?
- What are they doing to achieve their goal?
- What happened in the past that shaped them into who they are?
- What drives them now to act as they do?
- Why do they want the things they want?
But it’s also important to understand who THEY think they are. When I went to Diane McKinnan’s writers retreat at the beginning of October she had us undertake several different exercises. One of the exercises she shared was The Great I AM worksheet created by writer and communications professional Alexandra Franzen. Franzen is passionate about helping others communicate more effectively and developed this worksheet to “help you create a simple one page declaration of who you are and why your work matters.” It’s meant to be answered extemporaneously and should be completed in 20 minutes max.
At the retreat instead of answering the questions from my perspective, I interviewed Tegan, the heroine of my work-in-progress, a contemporary romance. Tegan doesn’t want to be a burden to anyone, so she’s very independent and is prone to telling people what she thinks they want to hear rather than what she truly wants.
It was really fun to complete this worksheet from her perspective especially when I went back and pressed her on some of the answers. She wasn’t super comfortable with the pressure, but I got some good information that will help me with the turning points in her relationship with the hero Troy. I was also able to “see” and make notes on some of her mannerisms. This will make it easier for me to describe her and put her in action in the story.
Get more indepth with your characters
The Great I Am Worksheet is an excellent starting point, but you’ll probably need more information? Why not have your character take a survey. Lately nary a day goes by on Facebook where you see “Which (Star Wars/Star Trek/ The Walking Dead/Friends/Brady Bunch) character are you?” There’s also the “What Color best represents you?” and a multitude of other variations. Answer them as one of your characters. You might be surprised at what you learn.
Find a magazine or a website that’s focused on a subject of interest to your character. I’ll bet it won’t take much digging to find a survey or questionnaire. There are no shortages of surveys out there. So go ahead and put your characters on the hot seat. The more you know, the easier it is to casually incorporate those details into your work and write a story about characters that leap off the page and that your readers can’t help but care about.
How do you get to know your characters?
Lee Laughlin is a writer, wife, and mom, frequently all of those things at once. She blogs at Livefearlesslee.com. She is currently a member of the Concord Monitor Board of Contributors. Her words have also appeared in a broad range of publications from community newspapers to the Boston Globe.