Getting to Know Your Characters

(C) 2020, JJ Shaun
Talking to my characters.

As writers, we frequently stare at a blank page and struggle to find a place to begin our stories. We know what we want to write, we just don’t know where to start. I know I do, and judging by the social media comments, a lot of you do, too.

In my case, when I’m staring at that blank page, I find it’s easiest to start listening to the characters in the tale. I let them tell me about themselves. What are their hopes and dreams? What do they long for? What are they most afraid of? Mostly, they talk, I listen. Some personalities are transparent, others are guarded, and I have to dig deeper. Think about it. Everyone loves and remembers a good character.

Because I already have an idea of the predicaments that are about to confront them, I need to know how they will react to new challenges and environments. As writers, we all know that the best way to test your characters is to throw their worst nightmares at them to see what happens.

When things are going well, it’s tiresome. What happens when your main character, who is terrified of snakes, suddenly finds herself in a snake den? Or the antagonist who hates children is conned into playing Santa Claus for charity? Knowing your characters intimately will inform you of how they will probably respond to these situations. Be careful though, it’s easy to get carried away and put your creations into such an impossible situation that they won’t survive.

Once my characters have told me their stories, then what? I go snooping through their rooms, their reading piles, and their medicine cabinets. Why? Because what I find in all those places tells me a little bit more about their personalities. Get nosy and rummage through their lives, find out who they really are.

Are their rooms spotless, or do they wait until they can no longer stand the clutter to clean? Look into the closet. Are their clothes jammed on hangers and stuffed into place, or are their shirts all pressed and hung by color and style? Browse their reading pile. Are they reading fiction or non-fiction, fantasy or quantum physics? Check out the medicine chest and the bathroom. Is the bathroom clean or a little crusty? What medications, if any, do they have in the cabinet?

Don’t just listen to them about themselves. Because people see themselves one way, and other people often see them differently, ask their closest friends and family about them. Talk to the twins in private about what they feel for each other at the deepest level. Ask them about their brother, Talbot, and vice-versa.

Some writers go as far as writing a character’s story from the day they were born until they are thrown into the inciting incident for your tale. I’m not sure I’ll go that far, but I will investigate their childhood to discover the source of their fears. Who knows? Maybe their biggest fear or terror goes all the way back to their birth, I won’t know until I run down all the rabbit holes.

Along with all of this interviewing and snooping, I’m also fleshing out and researching the central plot angles. This group of stories will begin in the world as we know it. Some of the locations will be real, others will be composites of multiple locations. For now, I’m concentrating on getting to know the characters. I’m still filling in the blanks for the setting.

What about you? How do you begin with the blank page and turn it into a character profile?

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