Monday, June 22, 2009

Getting To Know You

I’ve always found the better I know my characters the easier it is to write my story. If I know my characters inside and out, if I can identify with them, I’ll know what they’ll do in any situation. Their actions will grow out of their personalities and are natural and consistent. In other words, they react like “real” people.

So how do I get to know my characters? One way is by using a character sketch. The character sketch covers everything from physical attributes and educational background, to attitudes towards sex, his/her family, and life in general. I like these two character sketches that I found on-line. The first one includes things to be aware of when assigning traits to your characters, and the second one has many interesting questions to ask yourself about your character. I’ve used this one for many years:

1. Name, age, birthday, birthplace.
2. Body type: height, and weight; short description of overall appearance; general impression she/he gives.
3. Details of physical appearance: color of eyes; color of hair and complexion; frequent facial expressions; way of moving and walking; sound of voice. Characteristic mannerisms and gestures.
4. Dominant character traits. Which get her/him into the most trouble? Basic personality: extroverted, introverted, independent, insecure, other.
5. Taste and preference in dress: favourite outfits, jewellery, makeup if applicable.
6. Personal history and background: Are parents alive? Siblings? Role in family when growing up; type of childhood.
7. Previous relationships with opposite sex. If married before, describe marriage. If divorced, how bitter? If widowed describe feelings about deceased spouse. If single, what past love experiences? Attitude toward sex, toward own sexuality, toward opposite sex.
8. Educational background and current profession: skills, responsibilities, goals, daily responsibilities in present job.
9. Personal goals, dreams hopes, and philosophy of life.
10. Hobbies and talents, outside of professional skills.
11. Problems character is facing as the novel opens, both emotional and practical.
12. Past experience that provides motivation for character’s decision and action in relation to problem or problems that arise(s) as the story develops.
13. How will character’s decisions and actions complicate the resolution of the problem?
14. Write a paragraph summing up the essence of this character’s personality. Now reduce it to one line.

The character sketch is not written in stone. As you write you may add to your knowledge of your character as you get to know him/her. I suggest revising your sketch as you go.

Another great way to get to know your character is to interview them. Yes, I do know we are talking about a fictional character, but treating her like a real person helps to make her come alive for your readers. Vanessa Grant, in her book “Writing Romance” offers this advice and some sample questions to ask your character:

1. Ask a friend to be your interviewer. A writer friend is best: he or she will understand what you’re trying to do.
2. Record the interview. Recording will eliminate the distraction of taking notes.
3. Give your interviewer a starter list of questions, then tell him or her to wing it, ask anything at all.
4. Slip into character and answer all questions in the first person.
(Note: it is possible to simply interview your character yourself using a recorder, or a keyboard. Whatever works for you.)

Sample Questions:
- Where and when were you born?
- Tell me about your parents.
- Was your family rich, poor, middle class? How did this affect you?
- Which parent were you closest to? What’s your relationship today?
- Any siblings? Tell me about them. What’s your relationship today?
- What’s your education background?
- Did you like school? If not, why not?
- Did you have a pet?
- Ever been married? What happened?
- What do you consider your best physical feature?
- Do you read? What kind of reading? Books? Magazines? Newspapers?
- What makes you angry?
- What do you care about most?

Sometimes it’s helpful to look over a list of personality traits to narrow down those you want your character to have. This list also includes the corresponding negative trait in addition to the positive trait.

How do you get to know your characters? Do you fill out character sketches or conduct interviews? What other methods have you used? For fun, check out the character sketches for the former Canadian TV show “Due South”, particularly the one for Constable Benton Fraser, just because he’s cute. But seriously, this site gives an idea of how sketches are created and used.


connie said...

Hi Jana,
As soon as I figure out how, I am going to print out your blog as a terrific reference.
I am going to run my characters through the 'test' and see what if anything can be done with them. I am anxious to see how it works! Mine decidedly need a third dimension. Right now, I wouldn't be bothered to invite them to meet for coffee.

Captain Hook said...

I actually hate character sketches. The few times I have used them, they haven't told me anything I didn't already know.

Character interviews are somewhat better, but I don't want to be my character. If I did, I would have been an actor.

The thing that works best for me (suggested by my friend over at The Innocent Flower blog) is to periodically take scenes/chapters and write them from other characters' POV. Even for a firsat person novel, it works (though it won't be included in the final draft).

I've found that extremely helpful for Cassandra's Secrets. It helped me understand why Cassie's father is an abusive drunk, why Jack loves her so much, why the kidnappers took to a life of crime, etc. And some of those chapters, I'm now adding in because it works so much better from that person's POV rather than Cassie's.

Sorry if I sounded harsh towards your suggestions. I know they work for a lot of people. Just not me.

Karyn Good said...

This is a very timely post for me, Jana. I'm just starting a new project and I've printed off a character sketch to use. I'll have to check it against your examples and see if it's got everything. I also thought the personality traits lists was very interesting and will be using it.

I participated in the interview exercise that the SWR's did online and I found that to be useful and productive.

Due South! I loved that show! Very interesting to see how they laid out the information.

Thanks Jana.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Connie,
I hope you find some of this information useful to you. I find that it really makes me think about my characters, what's happened to them in the past, what makes them tick. But I always find as I write I learn more about them. I start with the skeleton of the character, throw in some flesh and blood as I'm writing, and hopefully by the end of the writing process I've got a fully formed human.

Sorry, I can't help you copy from the blog (total techno dummie here), but if you're interested, contact me offline and I can send it to you in Word.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Captain,
Not to worry! What works for one writer may not work for another, hence the whole pantser vs. plotter debate. I say go with what works for ya!

I'm fascinated by your practice of writing the scene from another person's POV. I've never done that as a method of learning about another character, but I can certainly see how that works. It's almost like a character interview, except you are "interviewing" another character to get their opinions/insight on that character. It's a unique method of learning about your characters.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
Most character sketches have some of the same information, but sometimes something new and different is added. I hope you find some useful things here.

I loved "Due South" too. Well, mostly I love Paul Gross as an actor. He has got to be one of the best looking guys out there. Have you seen his WW1 movie?


Karyn Good said...

No, I haven't seen it yet but I want to! And who could forget Men With Brooms which starred Paul Gross who also directed.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

I'm not a huge fan of character sketches either, but I did find the interview exercises we did helpful at a later stage. I don't think I could do those sort of things with a fresh character though, as it would all just change once they asserted themselves on the page. Those lists of traits and attributes in your links seem like great thought starters for exploring fresh ground though, and I could see something like this being a good exercise for writing something I'm not necessarily invested in. Random selection of personality traits could lead to some interesting conflicting actions.

I know of another neat thought-starter character exercise. I'll have to see if I can find it.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Ah, here it is. From Magical Words:

Your character has one great strength and one great weakness. The weakness makes the conflict worse, the strength and developing strengths saves him and resolves the plot’s conflict. This is called the marriage of character development and conflict.
There are specific, identifiable parts to strength and weakness Characterization…. These are called TRAITS.

1. Human or Natural Traits: Read here selfish.
2. Typical Traits: These are representative of a group. (Group being the character's race, type, whatever's relevant)
3. Individual Traits: These traits are peculiar to one character, the non-stereotypical and personal traits fall under this heading.
4. Moral or Social: Read here unselfish.

So, how do I use the traits to develop a character? (Develop = change, growth, evolution.)

If you look at the traits carefully, and if you’ve had a philosophy, or psychology, or spiritual realization course at anytime in your life, you will spot some methods of characterization and character development right off! Numbers 1 and 4 give us the greatest room for conflict. The internal conflict(s) of character development has to contend with the external plot conflict(s). The natural man’s desire for self gratification butts up against the social man’s need to assist the group. These traits come between the two conflicting parts of being human. All 4 traits (in differing quantities) are needed for a well rounded positive character or hero, and for an exciting, suspenseful antihero or bad-guy character.

If you follow the link at the top, you can see numerous examples of how these four categories can work together.

Ban said...

I liked doing character sketches when I first started writing - it was fun and it forced me to create background etc. for them. Granted, they changed many times as I got to know my characters better but I like having the bio sheet in my folder to look at now and again - makes me feel like I was productive at one point in time :) Another device I like to use (I posted about this on my blog #10) is astrological signs. I don't read horoscopes but I find the personality traites 'assigned' to the various signs fascinating. It's also neat to see how a 'good' trait like being protective can be taken to its extreme 'overbearing' or 'dominating', in a person.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
Oh yes, how could I forget "Men with Brooms". Probably the only movie ever made about curling! Probably the last too.

Thanks for reminding me.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
I checked out the site you mentioned and I see how this method would be very useful. This writer has created a very unique character who has traits common to all of her kind but individual traits that make her distinctive. It's an interesting way of looking at character.


Silver James said...


I loved both! *fond sigh* This is a great post, Jana. When a main character pops into my imagination, s/he takes up residence for awhile. We talk at odd intervals, often when I'm driving alone, or cooking/cleaning. I learn about their history, their families, and why they think their story is important enough that I should tell it.

I do eventually make written note of their physical characteristics and pertinent facts about their pasts, presents, and futures. Sometimes, those bits and pieces work into my MS. Sometimes, they don't. And sometimes, in the case of Sade in SOTW, the history becomes 1/3 of the book and I have to rip it out and start over. *sighs and waves a negligent hand over shoulder* Yes, Sade. I WILL created a novella of your growing up years. Promise. *rolls eyes* You'd think she and Ify would go off in the corner and play happily...

Jana Richards said...

Hi ban,
I like taking a positive trait and making it less positive, like the one you mentioned -- protectiveness, which can become smothering and overbearing. It's all a matter of degree and how far you take it.

I read my horoscope every day (for all the good it does me)but I've never thought of using the traits of astrology as part of a character. What a great concept! It can be a good starting place for giving your character a personality.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Popping back, Jana I love the prospect of twisting positive traits into negatives. That's actually what I thought that one link you provided was, the negatives rather than the opposites. It's a great way to unearth the plot in a trait too, confidence turning to arrogance, etc.

Anyway, second to last paper of my degree is turned in, I'm off to have some fun for the evening, before #2 kicks in.

Janet C. said...

Great post, Jana. I don't usually do character sketches - like Silver, my characters come to me. I have found the character interviews we did on the SRW blog really helped dig deeper into their physche. Didn't necessarily like what Mac shared, but it will make him much stronger and the conflict between he and Gillian will be much more believable.

This will be a great reference to come back to when I get organized. Thanks, Jana.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Silver,
You actually saw Men with Brooms and Due South? I didn't think anyone south of the border would be familiar with them. I'm thrilled!

I know what you mean about a character rolling around in your head. I usually experience that as well. But as some point I have to write things down. Putting ideas on paper helps me to organize my thoughts. It also helps me to decide if this story has enough conflict and excitement to sustain a full length novel. So I always find that working on characters and doing a rough outline are useful for me.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
I like the idea of taking a positive trait too far. In my current WIP, Jack is the father of a daughter with Down syndrome. She was sick as an infant and needed heart surgery. As a result Jack is a very attentive and protective father. Too protective. He nearly smothers his daughter with his love, not letting her learn to live life on her own terms.

Congrats on finishing one more essay. Have fun and good luck on the last one.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
I guess it's just my anal nature and my need to write things down that prompts me to work on character sketches. But like I said earlier, whatever works for the writer. If someone can take away something useful from this blog, I'm happy.

Happy packing Janet.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Jana, I used the character sheet found on the eHarlequin site for the first few books but for the last one, I modified it and put it on a spreadsheet. This was supposed to give me more room to play around with but I may go back to the streamlined eharl one.

I don't fill in the complete chart at the beginning, though. I fill in most of the blanks but as I write, I tend to add little details and then go back to the character sketch and add the details in.

Great post.