Characters must come alive on the page. But in order for them to come alive on the page, authors must get to know them even better than they know themselves. After all, how many people remember the details of their childhood? But with characters, there is nothing that an author can’t discover.
I talk to my characters. I interview them, asking them the most intimate of questions, questions I wouldn’t dare ask a best friend. There is nothing private when it comes to knowing your characters! Every detail, from the benign to the intimate, is for you to discover, imagine, uncover, and reveal as needed.
Who are your characters? Do you know your characters?
Here’s a list of things you may need to know, in no particular order.
- Family members and their relationships.
- Adults who influenced them and why.
- Friends and acquaintances and how those relationships impact them.
- Strengths and weaknesses and how a strength can become a weakness and how a weakness can become a strength.
- Communication skills. Know how your characters receive/share information.
- How setting impacts the character.
- Childhood experiences, including traumas—emotional, spiritual, physical.
- Scars, both physical and emotional and how they got them.
- Hurts/humiliations: being ostracized, laughed at, embarrassed.
- Physical attributes.
- How they perceive themselves and why.
- How others perceive them and why. (Note: these can be a lie.)
- Likes and dislikes.
- Sexuality/sexual activity.
- Obstacles: physical emotional, spiritual, financial.
If you explore these aspects, then I assure you, you’ll discover things about your characters that will surprise you.
Most importantly, understand who your characters are by unraveling the key question behind all those issues: Why? For a list of “Why?” questions to help you with your writing process and to dig deeper to reveal secrets, check out this list.
Here’s one exercise to get you started:
Choose a characteristic and discover if there’s a secret behind the behavior.
Sixteen-year-old girl never raises her hand in class, even though she knows the answers to questions. Huddles in her seat to help her be more invisible. If the teacher calls on her, she’ll mumble the answer. Even if she’s correct, she experiences a lot of anxiety. Everyone thinks she’s shy —> Turns away when she sees someone getting bullied —> Worries about the person who was bullied. Plots revenge against bullies, but only in her thoughts —> Remembers a recent incident where her mom degraded her —> Plots revenge, but only in her thoughts —> Remembers how her older sister comforted her after their mother’s abuse —> Leaves an anonymous note in the locker of the bullied kid, offering moral support —> Dreams of being gagged. Begins to remember some serious encounters with her mom. Voiced an opinion, was gagged and mouth duct taped at a young age. Spent much of her early years being threatened by her mom: “Should I get out the duct tape?” —> Fearful to express opinions, learned to be very quiet. Incident happens at school that she can no longer ignore —> Takes a stand —> Negative consequences/positive consequences?
If class participation is a part of the grade, could have a teacher create a signal with the student, ensuring that she’ll never be embarrassed or called on to answer a question she doesn’t have the answer to. Or perhaps they have an agreement that once a week she has to answer a question. Or…?
As the author, you get to decide what’s relevant/critical to the story.
Good luck! Ask questions, dig deep, then deeper and discover those secrets!