How to Really Get to Know Your Characters Through a Simple Writing Exercise
Creating characters is easy at first. We give them names, ages, families, backgrounds — we put them into our stories and write about them. As we do all this, we get to know them better and our writing deepens.
But what happens when a character refuses to come to life? Or won’t “play ball” in your story? One remedy for this is to interview them.
This requires you to be familiar with free writing. If you’re not, you may want to practice free writing for a few days to see how it works. Generally, you sit and write for at least 20 minutes without stopping or editing yourself. You just write whatever comes into your head without judgment or second thoughts. Using pen and paper is the best — there is a better connection between moving hand and brain that way. If you want to know more about this, Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg is a great introduction to the technique.
The 20 minutes is important because it allows you to move past the obvious in your mind (what do I need to get at the supermarket, what time is my dentist’s appointment, did she really mean what she said?) and into the area of your mind where you’re not trying to dictate what you write. Instead, by keeping the writing going no matter what, surprising things emerge. Not stopping (not even to think!) also helps this process. Through the pen comes the unexpected.
So how does this work to create stronger, better characters? You’ve probably already thought a lot about your main character if you’re writing a novel. It might be through the writing you have done, or you could have already made lots of notes and visualized them. Now you need to allow them to speak.
Sit down at your desk or table with your notebook and pen ready. (You can do this on the computer if you are a fast typist, but generally free writing is like journalling and works better if you write by hand.) Imagine your character. Try to see him or her in your mind. Now imagine them entering the room and sitting on the other side of the desk from you. When they are seated, you can begin writing.
Introduce yourself. Ask them their full name. And then free write their answer. You must continue to do this all the way through. Ask your questions and free write whatever comes into your head as their answers. Don’t stop, don’t think, don’t edit. Just let it out.
It’s best to begin by asking them questions you think you already know the answers to, such as:
- Where were you born?
- Who were your parents?
- Did you have any siblings?
- Where did you go to school?
These kinds of questions will get them “talking”. Then begin to delve deeper into them, with questions such as:
- What is your best memory from school
- What is your worst memory from childhood?
- What did you want to be when you grew up?
- Have you achieved your dreams yet?
- Why not — what do you still want or need?
Then you can really go into the questions that have been vexing you the most:
- What are you doing in my story?
- Why won’t you co-operate — what is really bugging you?
- What does _____ mean to you (story-related — you choose the topic)?
- What is your deepest fear?
- What is your dream — what do you want more than anything else in the world?
You can probably guess that this is designed to help you, as the writer/creator, draw out everything about this character that you hadn’t yet put into words. But you will very likely also find that this process, if you fully engage with it, will surprise the heck out of you! You may end up changing your whole story. You may take this character and give them another story of their own. If you were writing a short story, you may end up with a developing novel. This technique can be used in all kinds of fiction writing, even children’s books. Whatever your form, your character will become deeper and richer than you ever thought possible.