Getting to know your characters

This is an updated version of the post found on my Tumblr page

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In order to write characters that are fully developed, well-rounded, and consistent in their characterisation it is utterly necessary to know them. Know them inside and out, as if they were real people; your friends or enemies.

There are hundreds of methods and activities that will enable you to know your characters better, but I’ll  cover just one method. For some ideas you could try a character generator.

Start at the very beginning 

The most important thing is to be as methodical and thorough when building a character as you would when building a world. I’d suggest following this basic series of steps to begin with;

  1. What part will this character play?
  2. What’s their name?
  3. Where are they from?
  4. Gender? (Keep in mind there are other options than male and female; I’m not an expert, though, so I’ve provided some resources at the bottom)
  5. How old are they?
  6. Whats their background? (consider family wealth or lack thereof, education, religion, size of family etc)
  7. Race/Ethnicity? (In case anyone is wondering why this is on the list it’s because I feel that, as an author, it’s important to get out of the habit of defaulting your characters to certain ethnicities or, as with the next step, sexualities. If your main character is straight and white that’s fine but if in a whole book all your characters are straight, white, middle class men then you might want to ask yourself why.)
  8. Sexuality?

Each of these things are important because (apart from their name, usually) they will have an affect on their lives, experiences, and motivations.

For example an African-American woman in Chicago will have an entirely different life experience from a Caucasian man living in Sweden. Likewise the experiences of a Transgender man will differ from those of a gay or asexual woman.

Long story short I’m telling you that if you treat every single character you create like an individual human being you can’t go far wrong. Diversity and good research will not only breath life into your characters, they’ll add realism to your world as well.

Example;

  1. Protagonist
  2. Sofie Awan
  3. British born, family from Pakistan
  4. Female
  5. 26
  6. Comes from a large, moderately wealthy family; she is well educated and a practising Muslim. (At this point you should consider what you need to research; do you know a lot about this religion and/or culture. For example which part of Pakistan are her family from? Are they Sunni or Shia Muslims?
  7. British, Pakistani Heritage (might be said to be South Asian/British on formal documents)
  8. Straight.

At this point you should also consider their personality. It’s best not to bog yourself down so pick Six main personality points; make sure they have some flawse.g

  • Kind
  • Conservative
  • Eager to learn
  • Ambitious
  • Loyal
  • Stubborn

One of the easiest ways to do this is to make short lists of their main likes, dislikes, fears and hopes/goals. In this way you’ll be able to know whats motivating them at any given point. For example;

Likes

  • Reading
  • Cooking
  • Painting
  • Spending time with family
  • Humour

Dislikes

  • Arguments
  • Drunk people
  • Bad grammar/speech
  • Poor manners

Fears

  • Disappointing her family
  • Dogs
  • Failure

Goals/hopes

  • Wants to run her own law firm
  • Wants children
  • Wants a PhD in criminal law.

So once we take all this information together we have a basic character model but what does it tell us?

  • It tells us that our character is a young, religious woman with cultural heritage that differs from the society she lives in now, we could say shes lucky enough to have a foot in each world right? What does this mean;
  • Well living and studying in the UK she’ll obviously speak English but, as her family emigrated from Pakistan it’s likely she’ll also speak another language.
  • REMEMBER; though the national language of Pakistan is Urdu there are also large portions of the country that speak Punjabi, Pashto and Sindhi.
  • With likes such as cooking, spending time with family and reading we can safely assume that she is quite traditional person who perhaps enjoys the quieter side of life.
  • She wants a family but also wants a career; this could be considered at odd with her traditional values but it is not uncommon or unbelievable. 
  • She expects good manners and grammar; she expects the best from everyone as well as herself. This could lead her to be overly critical or perhaps she may be a perfectionist!

 

This is the foundation of a character which can be realistic and evoke emotion in your readers. If you already have basic characters you can use this exercise to pin down all the basics, and, on a larger scale, create a record of characters in each novel or short story. Once you have this basic record you should write a few passages to situate them in your mind. I would suggest that you write your characters in the following situations;

  • Facing a fear of theirs
  • Dealing with a confrontation at work
  • Facing a medical emergency
  • Failing when it matters

These are the kinds of scenes which will tell you most about your characters and help you to write believable actions and choices for them.

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3 thoughts on “Getting to know your characters

  1. Pingback: 5 Steps to Sizzling Sex – The Merry Writer

  2. Pingback: Bringing down the “Strong Female Character” (in favour of strong female characters) – The Merry Writer

  3. Pingback: Writing a Great Antagonist; The Basics – The Merry Writer

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