The Sometime Hell of Writing
Saturday Writing Tip: Experiment with Viewpoint

7 Ways to Get to Know Your Character

Iceland-160976-hNo matter what you're writing, memoir, fiction or even web copy, character is everything. You've got to know your character through and through in order to write successfully. This was brought home to me all over again last week, when I spent the week with my daughter and her baby and learned, first hand, what their life is like together.

It is worth it to take the time to learn more about your character.  Otherwise, you'll get midway through your novel and realize you don't understand your character's backstory and hence, her motivation.  Or you'll be rolling along on your memoir and realize there are holes where you don't know some crucial bit of a character's timeline.

So here are some of my favorite ways to advance your understanding of your characters.

1. The Basics.  You gotta know this stuff.  You know, height, weight, hair color, eyes, age, astrological sign, etc.  The absolute bedrock basics you'd know about, say, someone in your family.  Write this stuff down and keep it somewhere you can access it so your character's eyes don't change color from page 5 to page 128, when her new love is gazing into them.

2.  Timeline.  What are the big events in your character's life, and the dates of them?  Things like birth, graduation, marriage, birth of babies, and so on.  You can also do an emotional timeline of important events and put the two together.

3. Ordinary Day.  I'm big on this one, because it is deceptively helpful.  From the time your character gets up in the morning, what does he do?  Start with getting out of bed and proceed in as much detail as you can muster.  You'll learn all kinds of interesting things, because how we spend our days is how we spend our lives, as Annie Dillard says.

4.  The Interview.  Ask your character questions about her life, the way you would if you were a journalist interviewing her for an article.  This can be especially helpful to jar loose secrets, conflict, and motivation.

5.  The Dream.  Author Robert J. Ray recommends this exercise, and its a doozy.  Doesn't seem like it would be worth much, but it can help a lot.  Start by writing, in the dream.....and then keep repeating the words in the dream as you write.  It gets you into a meditative state that will reveal depths.

6.  Look at Yourself.  You can find a lot of inspiration for your characters in how you approach life.  Write a journal entry and then rewrite it in the viewpoint of your character.  See how things change or remain the same. 

7.  Examine Setting.  Landscape shapes who we are.   A character who lives in rural South Dakota has different ideas and opinions than one who lives in Manhattan.  And yet, as Janet Burroway says, setting is so much more than just landscape.  It is the house you live in, the books on your coffee table, the mug you drink coffee from.  All of these things influence our character.

So there you have it, 7 ways to look at character.  Please comment and tell me your favorite ways to uncover the secrets of your characters!

Create a successful, inspired writing life:  Take the time to get to know each of your main characters as intimately as possible.  It will save you time in the long run!


Photo by cogdogblog.