It's a Process

But How Can I Get to Know Them if They’re a Character in a Story?

The answer is simple: you write them a life–not as the background in the story (although, you can include some of it if you want), but as something for you to reference. It’s true that you can have an idea in mind for your character’s personality and actions and start from there, but without knowing who your character actually is, you will have a hard time giving them any sort of depth.

Imagine if you were trying to write a story about your best friend. You would know exactly where to throw in their quirks and funky habits because you two are so close. Hell, you could write a biography about them if you really wanted to. That’s the level of comfort you need to have with the characters in your stories. You need to know them inside and out: what makes them tick? What are their fears? Dreams? Favorite foods? Hobbies? They’re going to be “people” once you put them on the page. Make them feel real to you.

“How would one do this?” you ask. The answer is simultaneously obvious and unclear. Each author has their own way of crafting their characters–some ways work better for one person than they would for another. I, personally, like to stick with the “best friend” concept. It’s easy, and quite fun, to do. I start off with a simple outline:

  • Name:
  • Age:
  • Hair Color:
  • Eye Color:
  • Height:
  • Weight:
  • Bio:
  • Hobbies:
  • Hometown:

When you’re done filling out the basic criteria, it will look something like this:

  • Name: Jessica Christine Miller
  • Age: 17
  • Hair color: Mahogany brown
  • Eye color: Blue
  • Height: 5’3″
  • Weight: 115lbs
  • Bio: Jessica is a senior in high school who drinks coffee regularly just to keep her headaches away. She ended her junior year with a few best friends whom she’d had a falling out with during the summer between junior and senior year. Her time at school is spent with her headphones in whenever she isn’t required to listen to the teacher or pay attention in class—and she hides in the corner of the gymnasium during PE just so she won’t have to deal with any assholes. She grew up hiking gorge trails and hitting walnuts with her older brother, who left and moved to Maine with his wife and child. She has a cat that she got to pick out the summer after freshman year in high school (which has grown to be a huge pain in her ass). Likes to sing and dance in front of her bedroom mirror when she’s home alone.
  • Hobbies: Cross-stitching, hiking, baking cookies/brownies, reading novels, journaling, driving around, listening to music.
  • Hometown: Tremansville, NY

From there, you may consider adding in things that you would want to know about them. Maybe you would want to follow your character on Instagram or Twitter because, at this point, you think they’re so damn cool. What would be their Instagram name? Twitter name? Would they have a Snapchat? Are they the type of person who would rather curl up in a window with a book or go out partying with their friends? By the time you’re done outlining who they are, you should know whether they’re the type of person you would love or hate to be with.

For this particular character, I chose to include:

  • Favorite TV show: Grey’s Anatomy
  • Instagram: jessybean17
  • School: Adams High

Pay particular attention to the Instagram name for a moment. See how it sounds cutesy and sweet? It conveys a part of her personality that you may not have even considered yet. It suggests that she’s the type of person who would post photos of her and her high school friends, her cat(s), her nails, and Starbucks coffee. She’s a typical girl. Believe it or not, a username can say a lot about a person.

Smaller details, like the name of the character’s school, can give you a sense of the setting before you’ve even started writing. What do you see in your mind when someone says the word “school?” Is it boring? Colorful? A brick building? Or is it concrete? You’re already imagining what it would be like to exist in the same building as this person.

The possibilities with the outline are endless. Capitalize on it. If you hate them, make them a well-hated main character, like Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. He’s an annoying punk. Most of my friends hated him–I loved him. If you do it, and do it right, you’ll create a gem that some will fall in love with and some will love to hate.

If you love them, be careful. Don’t get carried away with making them seem great. Emphasize their strong points through plot, action, dialogue, etc. You want to avoid telling your reader how great they are. You have to show them. If you’re constantly listing off or over-exaggerating their strong points, the reader will: a) get irritated and close the book; b) wonder why the hell you’re forcing an opinion on them; or c) start hating the character, but read on anyway and never touch the book again. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want any of those outcomes.

Starting your story is less taxing when you know what kind of character you’re going to center the plot around. It will change the voice your writing has and it may even change the story entirely. Give it a shot.

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5 thoughts on “But How Can I Get to Know Them if They’re a Character in a Story?”

  1. I also love taking personality quizzes for my characters. It sounds kind of ridiculous, but even something so simple as taking those silly Facebook quizzes “What’s your spirit animal?” and “What Disney Princess are you” can sometimes ask a question you hadn’t thought about and it’s a good way to just get to know your character even more.

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  2. Though I’m not a story writer I can see the significance of getting to know your characters. Before I switched to poetry, I found that the characters I’d create only felt special to me, excluding other readers and their feelings. I like how you pointed out that it’s important to not over exaggerate your character’s strong points, otherwise they’ll become irritating to readers. Viewing them as your best friend is a great way to approach this process, but you’ll need to be careful to not just include positive attributes. Adding flaws is also important to making your character seem realistic.

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  3. Getting to know your characters before you get too into a story is a really good idea. And since they’re your own creation, I feel like there’s no excuse not to be thinking of it. I especially love that you think of an instagram name too. It really is super telling for some people.

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  4. This is awesome and I wasn’t expecting it! I feel like this is such an important key in writing a story. You can’t just start off writing and let the characters fall in wherever- they shape the language when they’re not even a part of the scene. I like the questions you asked, I think it’s cool if you do do that with your writing.

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