Getting to know your characters

a microphone on a stand photographed by Paul Hudson

Image courtesy Paul Hudson Paul Hudson

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 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.


12 thoughts on “Getting to know your characters

  1. Interesting topic to bring up, thank you for the halpful links, I found the motto of The Great I AM worksheet very inspiring : “declare who you are & why your work matters only one rule: don’t overthink it “

  2. I recently self-published a short story A Fish OUT of the Water.
    I must confess I trampled all over your criteria in the writing of the short story. The honest truth is I became bored with the story due to the numerous times I spent putting the story into the correct format the publisher wanted me to use.
    Then I had to rewrite several portions of the story because I was not satisfied with the development of the characters in the story.I felt I needed to develop the circumstances of the characters part in the story. I embellished the story
    instead of the character. The part that was responsible for me getting bored was approving the galley proofs. In my haste I overlooked a lot of punctuation. Although I may have made a lot of errors I still believe in essence it is a good story for that genre. I thank you for the suggestions you have made,believe me, i will strive to do as you said.

    I recently began to write a novel covering a fictional account of three generations that were affected by Manifest Destiny. To develop my characters i am making an outline of each character and to thoroughly research actual events that I plan to interject my fictional characters into the equation. I hope I do not fall into the same trap when it comes to the point of approving galley proofs.

    Terrance Tracy

  3. Thank you so much for the I Am worksheet. I don’t write fiction, but after a quick look, i think this will be valuable in creative non-fiction and personal narrative writing as well because it will help me hone in my varying voices – essential to connecting with readers.

    • I agree it has multiple uses. Check out Ms. Franzen’s web site (linked above). She has other worksheets and blog posts that might also come in handy.

  4. The worksheet looks like a good idea. I’m always on the lookout for ways to get to know my characters better. Thanks 🙂

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