Plays With Words: Getting to know your characters

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If my calendar is to be believed, it’s already the middle of June—which means NaNoWriMo will once again be upon us in fewer than five months. I still haven’t decided whether I will participate this year. I technically “won” NaNoWriMo last year, but I wasn’t thrilled with what I’d written and discovered that it rambled a lot more than I would have liked. I didn’t even get close to the actual end of the story.

Writing a novel in a month is hard. Writing a novel in a month when you barely know your characters and only have a vague idea of what your plot entails is even harder. Writing a novel in a month and producing a cohesive, coherent storyline with believable characters is near-impossible. It’s not impossible, but it’s just really, really hard.

So where does it all begin? Some writers begin with setting. Some begin with plot. Some can’t do anything until they’ve written the last line of the novel. Me? I like to begin with characters.

Before I continue, though, I think this is the part where should offer my disclaimer:

The following writing advice/exercises are only my personal way of preparing for NaNoWriMo and getting to know my characters. This is not the only way to plan for NaNoWriMo. If you already have a method that works well for you, I’d love to hear about it in the comments because I’m all for learning how other authors write.

Okay, moving on.

Well-developed characters are at the heart of every story, and I think what makes a character come across well-developed is a good backstory. And that means you should have a basic idea of where your characters come from before you even write the first few words.

It sounds a little complicated in theory, but in practice, I promise it’s actually not that difficult. Let’s say, for the sake of this exercise, your story is loosely based on Little Miss Muffet. For those not familiar with the nursery rhyme, it goes like this:

Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet

Eating her curds and whey

Along came a spider who sat down beside her

And frightened Miss Muffet away.

Here are some questions for you to answer:

  1. Who is Miss Muffet?
    1. What’s her first name?
    2. Why was she named that?
    3. What do her parents do?
  2. Why is she sitting on a tuffet?
    1. Is she so little that a footstool is comfortable?
    2. Is she there because of a punishment? If so, what did she do?
    3. Did she seek out this particular tuffet, or is it the only one in the house?
  3. Why is she eating curds and whey?
    1. Does she like curds and whey?
    2. Is there no other food in the house than curds and whey?
    3. Does she wish she could be eating something other than curds and whey?
  4. Tell me about the spider.
    1. Was the tuffet in the corner, and thus close to the spider’s domain?
    2. Did the spider specifically choose to land on that tuffet, or was it accidental?
    3. What kind of a spider was it?
  5. Why was Miss Muffet frightened by the spider?
    1. Is she arachnophobic? (If so, explore this.)
    2. Was it a really large spider?
    3. Did the spider talk to her or behave in an otherwise non-spiderly manner?

These are, by no means, the only questions you should be asking of your characters, nor are they the only kinds of questions to ask. But these should give you an idea of how you can dig deeper and get to know your characters a bit better and help you build more discernible features beyond hair color, eye color, height, build, and skin tone.

So don’t be afraid to ask your character questions. Sit him down on the therapist’s couch and ask him about his first grade teacher. Dig deep and get to know your character.

And next time, we’ll take that backstory and those personality quirks and find ways to describe Miss Muffet so that she comes across on the page as an honest, real, and believable character.

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About Author

E.M. Caines

E.M. Caines writes as Ella Martin and is the author of Will the Real Prince Charming Please Stand Up?.

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