It’s our fourth installment of our CRAFTING CHARACTERS series, and today, we check in with writers who work their characters out on the page as they draft. Some of these authors do use some freewriting techniques, but usually after they’ve seen their character in action on the page, or during the revision process. Read on for some excellent insights!
Through the Story
I often start off getting to know my characters in my head before jotting down answers to character profile sheets, though I usually start off high level with general descriptions: personality traits or character quirks that have already jumped out at me. I always try to understand my character’s motivations and what they really want. However, I find I don’t usually know my characters well until I’ve drafted a story. I often get to know them as I begin to write about them – the character voice at the end of a first draft sounds different than that character’s voice at the beginning of that same draft. I get to know my characters as I come to learn their stories. Then I need to go back and revise a billion times because each revision teaches me something more!
Write & See Your Character in Action
While I use tools like character development templates and long questions about your character, I like to see my characters in action. I try to let them speak to me and write what comes out or I’ll close my eyes and conduct an interview to see what they say. Or I’ll write a scene based on a moment from their life, like their worst memory or first kiss, and see how they behave in those scenarios. I’ve found I get to know my characters on a much deeper level when I see them existing in the world.
—Denise Santomauro is a writer and freelance editor with Angellela Editorial
Sneak Up on Your Character–Early in the Morning + First Introductions Exercise
While some writers are lucky enough to have characters that show up fully formed on the page, my characters tend to be more wispy and wait around with their backs up against a brick wall waiting for me to tell them what to do. So the best way for me to get to know their desires is to keep showing up, especially when they’re least expecting me, like really early in the morning. But maybe that’s more about me than about my characters, because I can think clearly before all the chaos of the day starts knocking at my door.
One exercise that I like to do is something that I learned from Cheryl Klein. When I’m sloshing around in the middle of a manuscript and my characters are feeling a bit one-dimensional, I go back to where a specific character is first introduced. Then I make a list of the first ten or twenty things that character is, does, or says: physical description, action, dialogue. That gives me a clear vision of whether the image I have in my mind of my character is actually in agreement with what’s on the page.
For me, stories begin with a premise or idea, and then I start to consider what kind of person would be most challenged by the circumstances I’ve outlined. I have a general idea of who these people are as I draft, but I feel like I don’t really get into the heads of my characters until revision. Once I know the story, I know what works and what doesn’t. I’m also aware of exactly what I need more of in each of my characters, what will really make their true colors shine through. It’s then that I start tweaking scenes, throwing them out, or even writing new ones. As I’m drafting (and sometimes even revising!) I’ll also use a variety of tools and graphic organizers to get to know my characters better. I love the Onion Method, as well as Goal, Motivation, and Conflict charts to discover both internal and external story lines for my characters.
Check out some of our other Crafting Characters posts!
Anne-Marie Strohman (co-editor) writes picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult short stories and novels. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.