If you don’t feel close to your characters, you can’t expect your readers to.
When you think of a friend, you don’t imagine what makes them like everyone else, do you? No, you remember their quirks, their contradictions, their particular turns of phrase, their noble traits, their flaws. These are the things that make you laugh, wonder, and bring you close.
But as a writer, how do you discover vivid character traits that ring true?
Creating Strong Characters
I’m reading a wonderful craft book that is helping me get in touch with my characters from an unusual creative source—acting.
Brandilyn Collins’ Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets A Novelist Can Learn From Actors has terrific techniques. I’ll share just one with you. Really, you’ll want to read the whole book.
What is side writing?
Many writers find they can build strong characters through side writing. Side writing is anything you do as a writer that isn’t designed to go into your final draft. It’s the study, the inner exploration that helps you build your story world, the psyche of your characters, and the relationships between them that drive the conflict.
Side writing for a novelist is akin to an artist’s sketchbook. An artist tries out all kinds of techniques in their sketchbook. They draw studies of their subjects, they doodle, mess around, use pencils, or ink, or whatever medium they like, they tape in ideas. Sketchbook work doesn’t have to be good. It’s all fodder and inspiration for the final polished art pieces.
Your side writing should be your playground, where you flesh out and test your ideas.
Try this: Main Character Interview
- Set aside at least a half hour to try this exercise.
- Do a brief meditation in which you try to picture your main character. Close your eyes and visualize them sitting in front of you. Just take a few minutes and focus your energy on your protagonist. When you start to feel a little ridiculous, and like, wow, we writers sure are eccentric, then open your eyes and start writing.
- You can try writing by hand, or typing into your writing software of choice. If you are having trouble feeling in touch with your main character, I recommend trying doing this by hand, at least at first. It makes you slow down and pay attention.
- Start by greeting your main character like he or she is a real person. (This is a game of let’s pretend for grown-ups.)
- Then start having a conversation in which your goal is to chat and get to know each other.
- As you go along, get to the heart of what you really want to know about your character. Why are they so bent on revenge? Why are they so mad at their best friend? Whatever unanswered questions you have, ask them. You may not always get answers. Deflection is interesting, and you may want to ask again later.
- Get more specific and pointed as you go. Ask questions that will help you know the character’s big sticking points, their big terrors, their deepest most secret yearnings.
- Here are some suggested questions for after you are past the small talk: What would you die for? What do you live for? What is your biggest fear? If you won a billion dollars tax free, what would you do first? If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be? (Big questions like these can help you see what matters most to your main character.)
What to Do with the Interview Text
Once you are done with your interview, you may find you like the process. You may want to begin each writing session with one of these, to warm up, to get into your character’s voice. Great!
Keep everything and refer to it later, before you write scenes from this character’s point of view. You can start a writing session by asking a character what they want in this upcoming scene. You can even ask them advice on how to write future scenes.
This side writing exercise has a distinct advantage over the commonly recommended character questionnaire. In this exercise you are talking to your character directly, so you get to speak and hear their voice. And you are answering as your character, so you will get new information about how they feel. They may even share new secrets with you.
Your novel’s world and people begin to live inside your imagination long before the plot swings into action. Side writing exercises the one above can be a terrific way to start sketching out that world and those people, so that your main character starts off vivid and strong.