Monday, December 19, 2011

Getting to Know You...

by Jemi Fraser

... Getting to know all about you...

Okay, now I'm going to have that song stuck in my head for a while... (it's from The King & I for those of you who don't know :)) In the song, Anna is a teacher and she's talking about the joys of getting to know her new students.



As writers, we need to know our characters too. And we need to know them even better than we know our spouses, our best friends, our kids, and maybe even ourselves. We need to get right inside their heads and understand all of their wants, needs, hopes, dreams, fears, and everything else going through their hearts.

So, how do we do it?

There are many methods. It's important to find one that works for you. It's also fun to try out what other people do and see if you can use part or all of it yourself.

Character question sheet or a fact list. You can start with the easier stuff like physical attributes, then move into the internal items - what makes your character tick and get ticked off. Or you can make a list of all their favourite things. Or make a list of choices (coffee or tea, gun or knife, summer or fall) and decide which they'd prefer. There are all kinds of these question sheets floating around the web.

Character collage. Cruise around the internet or flip through magazines looking for photos that resemble your characters, their favourite places, outifts they would wear, ... Keep the images nearby for inspiration when you're writing.

Music playlist. Find songs your character would listen to, or songs that remind you of their personalities. Play these when you're writing to keep you in the right mood!

Sketches. You don't have to be an aritst to do this. But sketching what the characters look like can give you insights into their feelings & their personalities.

Backstory. Go ahead and write out some of that backstory and get to know your character. Write about the traumatic incidents in their past that affect who they are today. Write about those pivotal childhood moments that solidified their paths in life. None of it will probably ever make your final draft, but writing it out might make the characters more real.

So which of these do I use? Um... none. Instead I let the characters walk around in my head for a few days or weeks while I focus on anything but them. I let my subconscious take over. The story percolates in the background and the characters become three dimensional. By the time I sit down to write, my characters are real people - at least to me!

How do you make your characters real for you? Any tips to share?

50 comments:

Old Kitty said...

I'm terrible in that I just let the panster in me dictate how my characters develop!! So thank you for these very handy tips! Take care
x

JeffO said...

I am an over-writer. I could make a whole other book out of scenes I wrote and left in the trash. They weren't necessarily 'deep backstory' scenes, they just didn't work in the context of the novel, but they were very important in helping me understand my characters.

Jemi Fraser said...

Old Kitty - you're very welcome. I'm a pantster too! But I know these methods work for lots of folks! :)

Jeff - I've done that too. I like getting to know my charcters that way. And I'm learning to cut what the reader doesn't need to know!

Jackee said...

Characters are a stuggle for me--esp. the villian. So I have to do all 4 things at some level of focus. My favorites are character sketches. They give me that "now where was I?" list to go to before I sit down to a writing session. Thanks for your thoughts, Jemi! They are awesome!

Amanda_Corlies said...

I often to a combination of most of these things, plus I like considering what kind of art, TV, internet, movies my character likes. What kind of humor do they have? How do they interact with their friends and family? Of course, all of this can come out while writing back story as you suggested. But, it's fun to ponder. The key for me is to not let myself spend too much time researching all of this fun stuff that I put off the hard work in the story. Because when the going gets rough, I try to revert to more of this research. LOL! Thanks for the tips.

Julie Dao said...

I also do a character list! I write down all of the character's attributes and what they're like, but the funny thing is that I really don't get to know them until I start writing them. It's when I finish a novel that I think I've got a handle on the people in it!

Lynn said...

Great post Jemi. I do like character worksheets. And plan to try the music list soon. Also, I spend moments of my day just wondering what my character is up to at that moment. For example, if it is dinner time, is she in her room brooding or enjoying a hamburger with her dad at the local favourite burger spot? I don't write my findings down, but even when I am not writing, going along with all the other life-stuff I need to do, thinking about my character keeps me in my MC's head.

Agnes said...

I'm learning so much from you Jemi :-)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I make a character sheet complete with backstory. And music always helps!

Hart Johnson said...

I come up with the dominant personality traits they need to fullfil the story, then I tend to write a scene or two to get a feel... I like a good backstory as the REASON for anything that is going to make them behave in flawed ways. And then finally, I give them a birth date that fits those dominant personality traits and let the zodiac fill in some of the details, just so they are consistent in other domains.

Saumya said...

Great post. Jemi! I start with a character sheet list and then I try to add dimensions in their personalities. For example, if a character is known for being sweet and nice, I try to also show that they are becoming more assertive. It's the contradictions that make them real for me!

Christopher Hudson said...

My characters are always talking to me ... so much so that occasionally I have to slap my forehead and yell, "Be quiet, all of you." The nice side benefit to that is that strangers rarely try to engage me on a crowded elevator ... or anywhere else, for that matter.

Jemi Fraser said...

Jackee - thank you! I have made lists of character traits after the first draft is done to make sure I've stayed on track - so it's kind of the same thing!

Amanda - you're very welcome! I find it SO easy to get caught up in research too! Our characters are so fun to write about, it's easy to get caught up!

Julie - me too! That's why I'll create a bullet list of traits (well, sometimes I will) after the draft is done to help me ensure I've been consistent! :)

Lynn - thanks! I love that idea! Our characters are always buzzing around in our brains anyway, so putting them right in our life to watch how they react is brilliant! :)

Alleged Author said...

I love the idea of a character question sheet. So stealing it! :P

Jemi Fraser said...

Agnes - thanks so much! You're such a sweetie! :)

Alex - I agree - music helps with just about everything! The character sheet is a really good idea, especially if you're going back to the world and characters for sequels!

Hart - what a great idea! I've never thought of using the zodiac traits as part of my character development. I'll have to think about that. Pretty sure I've got a Taurus on my hands in this one! :)

Saumya - me too! I love when none of the characters follow a stereotype - those folks are dull and boring. That way we keep them interesting!

Christopher - love it! Talking out loud to those invisible folks definitely is a sign of a writer ... or at least that's what I keep telling my family! :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Alleged - go right ahead! I know a LOT of authors use them - and have great success. They're fun! :)

Lisa Gail Green said...

LOL. I meet them in my head too. That sounds SO bad! But you get what I mean!! If I'm having a lot of trouble, I write a page or more in first person from that character's POV.

Jemi Fraser said...

Lisa - it really does - but at least we know it's normal (well, at least for us!). That's a good tip - I haven't tried that one before! :)

Wendy said...

I jot a page or so of backstory... one line of physical appearance, a sentence about their family and/or social life (orphan or 3rd of 10 children in a big farm family, etc). I add in what drives them, what their passion is. This helps you when you know what they will do in certain situations. And then drill down to defining moments in their life that formed their passion and/or philosophy.

It's one of the most fun parts of the writing in my opinion!!

Jemi Fraser said...

Wendy - that sounds like a great list idea! Their passions really tell us so much about their personalities and define their choices. Thanks so much for sharing :)

Leslie Rose said...

I like to play the "what would my character do" in situations that I mind myself in. I've discovered some of them are real stinkers sometimes.

Amy L. Sonnichsen said...

I love that you have that great list and then you don't use any of those techniques! LOL! I don't either, so I felt so much better at the end of your post. :) I also just let my characters live in my mind for awhile, but I must say, I think I might sit down with a sketchpad tonight and do some drawing. That sounds like fun. I'll probably be frustrated at the end, but oh well! :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Leslie - that's a great idea! A couple of mine would be stinkers too! :)

Amy - it's nice not to be alone! Most people do seem to do something outside of their minds, but I'm glad I've got company! :)

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I do the character sheets, but that's really boring. I also do character collages. I love them because I feel like the characters are in the room with me because I can see them and the words I add remind me of who they are.

I also create backstories for all the key characters. It helps me know who they are and why they act like they do.

All these things are a lot of work, but I wouldn't create my characters any other way.

Angela Ackerman said...

I have not yet tried the Character collage, but it is such a creative and fun process I think I'll give it a go when I start a new project. Characters are sometimes a struggle for me, so anything i can try to do and improve is great. :) Thanks for the tips--so helpful! Have a great Christmas!

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Ciara said...

I let them evolve, but when I work on revisions I'll dig deeper. Sometimes asking strange questions that the reader will never know the answer to. Just a way to understand them better.

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

I'm like you. I don't really do any of those things. I usually have to work with them for a while to get a feel of them. Sometimes it takes a few drafts before I have a real sense of who they are. Their motivations and personalities often will change in the course of rewrites.

Jemi Fraser said...

Stina - sounds like you've found the perfect system for you! That's awesome! One of these days, I should probably write some of it out, but right now I keep it in my head :)

Angela - thank you! I hope you have fun with your collage! I know it works well for a lot of people. Enjoy a fabulous Christmas :)

Ciara - I like to get to know mine as I write as well - it makes for a fun first draft! :)

Carol - I've had the personalities change too as I get to know them. I have to revise to make them consistent!

Baur said...

Hey neat blog following :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Nice to meet you Baur! Hope you enjoy the blog! :)

DEZMOND said...

lovely and informative post, Jemi!

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I do all of those but the sketches. (Stick figures just don't inspire me.) I had fun looking for photos of actors and actresses who looked like my characters, too. Darn, spend three hours looking for the perfect Christian Bale photo. What a shame!

Jemi Fraser said...

Thanks Dezzy! :)

Diane - what a horrible way to spend 3 hours! :P Might just have to try that myself! :)

Aubrie said...

Great post about getting to know characters! I let my characters do whatever they want, even if it takes the story in another direction. I stay true to who they are, not who I want them to be.

Jemi Fraser said...

Aubrie - thanks! I like letting my characters take the lead too. When I try to guide them too much, I tend to wander off in wrong directions! :)

Elisabeth Hirsch said...

That music playlist is such a great idea! I can't wait to try it :0)

Jemi Fraser said...

Elisabeth - yay! Glad I could help you out a little bit - have fun with it! :)

Angela Solano said...

I recently went crazy "getting to know a character". I was curious how one of the main characters of my book would describe a certain scene, so I tried it. It is the boyfriend of my main character. I had such a blast writing from a boys point of view, I ended up rewriting the first draft from his point of view. I learned quite a bit about him and his family doing this. I even read it to my husband (I often read excerpts of what I write to him to see if it makes sense to someone else and not just to me). He really liked it, and now, it leaves me wondering if I shouldn't write the whole dang thing from his perspective. Ughh, decisions, decisions. I might need a critique partner to help me decide which direction to go in.

Jemi Fraser said...

Angela - decisions like that are so hard!!! It sounds like the story is flowing really well from his pov, so it might be the right choice. If you're looking for crit buddies, you might want to check out Agent Query Connect - I found mine there and they are golden! :) Whatever you do, good luck with the story!!

LD Masterson said...

I do the usual backstory, character sketches, and such, but I also write scenes in my head of my character doing whatever I'm doing when I'm not writing. If I'm doing laundry, I imagine a scene of my character doing the laundry - it helps me work out the details and get a better grasp on the character.

Jemi Fraser said...

Linda - I've never done that, but it's a really good idea! I'm definitely going to start trying that out :)

Margo Berendsen said...

You are funny - giving us a great list and then informing us you don't use any of them!!!

One I've always WANTED to try but never get around to is the character journal.

Jemi Fraser said...

Margo - just the way my brain works, Margo. Little scary, isn't it? :)

I think all of the ideas sound great - just haven't tried them! :)

Nisa said...

I'm so glad you invited Jemi to guest blog so I could discover a new blogger. :D

Jemi, that is so awesome! I actually dream about them. I throw them in imaginary scenarios and see what happens. They sort of decide what they're doing. As long as I spend time thinking about them, they create themselves. :)

Medeia Sharif said...

I've done backstory and collage, but I'd like to try the others. Thank you for the list and descriptions.

Rosalind Adam said...

Many years ago an elderly writer gave me the advice to always interview your characters. Sit them at the table opposite you and fire questions at them. She said that I shouldn't use regular questions but ask them things like where they keep their socks and what they've got in their pockets or bag. I've always taken this advice and it works better for me than using a magazine photo which I've also tried.

klahanie said...

Hi there,
It's quite simple for me. I become the character. And my character can be one of the 'wee folks' on my site, or if I'm writing about a brush or a solar lamp or a 'talking' fridge or an oven, I become those 'characters'.
In addition, I have Penny the Jack Russell dog and modest internet star, guest write for me. In fact, she has tried to teach me, a mere human, how to write better. So far, she has failed miserably. You may note this from my disjointed, nonsensical comment.
Have a good 'Boxing Day Eve'.
In kindness and confusion, Gary :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Nisa - love it! That's kind of the way my brain works as well. It's fun to let them roam around while I watch what they do.

Medeia - you're very welcome! There are a lot of different ways to get to know our characters - and they're fun! :)

Rosalind - that's a fun idea! The pocket question reminded me of Bilbo! Those little details really give you some insights into their personalities. :)

Gary - I think you do more than quite well! As does Penny! It's fun to 'become' the characters and look at the world through their eyes!

Helen Ginger said...

I'm a bit like you. I listen to the characters, but esp the protagonist, talk and move in my head. On a manuscript I recently finished, I began to sort of channel her. I wrote and wrote her as a child, then finally quit when the story wasn't moving forward. By then I knew so much about her and what had happened that affected her as an adult. And so I started the story with her grown and dealing with what happened in the past.

Jemi Fraser said...

Helen - that's a great idea! Our childhoods create us and its the same for our characters! Once we really know who they are and why, we can tell their stories! :)