Getting to Know Your Characters– Exercises for Your Mind

Someone much more talented and wiser than I can ever hope to be (I think it was Paulo Coelho) once said that all writers must write from experience. After all, it is all we know (I crudely paraphrase, of course). As such, when working on a bit of fiction from a perspective that is any way alien to me—the enhanced gender, for instance, or that of a character from another race, or even, say, an alien—I often find my own opinions and thoughts creeping into those of my characters. My stories thus become corrupted, polluted. They lose some of their honesty when I, as the writer, am unable to objectively consider how they would react to a scenario, and opt instead to simply replace what would be their unique reaction with my own knee-jerk response. It is a difficult thing to stretch outside your comfort zone when attempting to familiarize yourself with a novel character, and at times, I think we all find ourselves stuck. Here are a few exercises that I have found help me to better understand my characters when they seem exceptionally foreign:

1)      Make lists.

Lists are amazing little devices in literature—even in the news, presented objectively they can evoke a dramatic response. Consider the following: police found a duffel bag containing a large knife, several plastic garbage bags, rope, duct tape, and a Polaroid camera. See what I mean? Make a list of what is in your character’s fridge, what is on their coffee table, in their pantry, medicine cabinet, shower, bathroom, or whatever. Are these items clean or filthy; organized meticulously or in utter disarray? Each of these details will offer insight to and describe a different type of person, and they may even shine a light on the personality quirks of your less-developed characters.

2)      Journal

Follow your character for a week, independent of the framework of your preexisting storyline, and see what life is like for them. Where would your character like to vacation? What sort of challenges do they face on a daily basis? How do people react to them at first glance? Would this character even bother to journal, or would they just rant on a napkin and throw it away? Maybe they are the blogging type. You can amend this to be a meal log, an online chat log, or any other relevant form of self-expression that your character may utilize, or even a journal made by a third party about your character.

3)      Write a back story

Even if it is not directly relevant to your storyline, your character’s history (real or imagined) is what made them who they are today. To have a more complete understanding of their bio can lead to more informed and more natural sounding writing, even if the back story never finds its way into the final draft.

4)      Write a piece of Mini-Fiction.

You aren’t going to share this with anyone, so feel free to go crazy on it. Send your character to the grocery store, the bank, or to the neighbor’s house to borrow a cup of milk and see what ensues. It may contribute to your original story idea or even evolve into something completely different, perhaps better.

Any one of these exercises can be manipulated an infinite number of ways to accommodate the changing landscape of a character in development. Try them out and let me know how they work—if they work—for you . Do you have any special technique that you use to more completely develop your characters? I would love to hear from you.

Until next time.

–          Craig Baker

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