Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Getting to Know your Characters

The characters are a pretty key part of any story (the other of course being plot, but we'll discuss that another day) and its important to know your characters - especially the main character well.

How do you get to know your characters?

I try to avoid writing an introduction to a character that sounds like an application for a date: curly blonde hair, green eyes, likes long walks by the beach and listening to soft jazz. But yet if that's what the character is like, I need to know it.

So I give my character an out-of-book assignment.

An essay.

"Who am I?"

And make them write it. Okay, yeah, I know I'm doing the writing but I let myself get totally into the characters head and write as if I were them answering the question. More than likely none of the specifics written there will end up in a manuscript - but the important thing is it allows me to really get to know my character.

Here's a sample essay from an as-of-yet unwritten story

Essay assignment – Who am I?

I hate these kind of assignments. They always assume that you know who you are and have something to say about it. Well, I don’t. But, I guess Mr. Blair won’t take that for an answer, so I better get to work. I’ll start with the basics. My name is Amy Patricia McKenzie. I was born 15 years ago on a snowy February day. It has snowed every day on my birthday ever since. My mom says that’s an omen. I’m not sure of what.

My father is Mitch McKenzie he works in an office. I don’t know what he does, nor do I particularly care. He’s always tired at the end of the day, I figure the less said about it the better. My mother is Lottie McKenzie. She teaches Art at St. Stephen’s High School. Good thing I’m not artistic or I’d have to be in her class.

I suppose I can describe myself. I have light brown hair, that sometimes looks blonde by the end of the summer, if I’m outside a lot. I have brown eyes and a couple of freckles on my nose. I’m average height and average weight. This is why I don’t like to write these kind of essays.

Let’s see, I can write about what I enjoy. I don’t enjoy writing essays. At least not this kind. I do enjoy writing poetry. I like to read. I play basketball on the school team – but I’m not very good. I like to listen to music and shop at the mall. I’m a typical teenager. So there.

Oh, and Mr. Blair, I know you know my mother, so you know I’m adopted. Why didn’t I put that first in my essay, you wonder? Because that’s not how I identify myself. I am Amy. Not adopted-Amy.

Now that I got that out of my system I guess I’ll write the real essay.

So, what would your main character say if you gave them this assignment?


  1. Oh--wow! I love how you throw in the adoption at the end!

    And can I compliment you on your character's name (as that's the name of my current heroine in my WIP)? :)

  2. Thanks Beth. I'm glad you like the characters name. :)

  3. Great post, Christine! That's a wonderful exercise for developing characters.


  4. Thanks, Kat,
    I find it lets me figure out some back story and the characters voice - before I actually start writing the story.

  5. Great idea for getting to know your characters, Christine!

    One time, one of my critique partners interviewed a character of mine, and I had to give the answers for him. Though I couldn't quite get my hero's voice right, it ended up being a wonderful exercise. I think I learned more about him than anyone!!

  6. This is a great idea! I might make this a Disney challenge!

  7. Great idea! What a cool way to do a character sketch. I love yours and can I use it? Huh?? Please? BTW, the adoption thing is intriguing. Write it, write it!:0)

  8. Linda, I like your idea of an interview. That's another great way to get to know the character.

    PJ - a Disney challenge sounds like a fine thing!

    Robyn - there's various reasons this one wasn't written, but I'll have to revisit the possibility.