For me, knowing my characters—inside-out, from their childhood traumas to their adult dreams to their political views to their favorite color—is the silver bullet for getting into their heads. To get to know them, I take a three-pronged approach: (a) a little up-front character “study,” (b) a long flight into the mist, and (c) a longer flight through edits.
I am not a plotter, so there isn’t much I like to do up-front. However, I usually do jot down some background work on the three main characters—hero, heroine, and villain. Often, I use a brief structure for identifying the basic character wants, needs, wounds, backgrounds. Several different tools can come in handy for this: Deb Dixon’s goal-motivation-conflict (GMC) statements, Michael Hauge’s identity-essence studies, Stanley Williams’s virtue and vice framework. Answering the questions asked by all these approaches provides me with the basic knowledge of what’s making a character tick.
Then I like to quit, though, and dive into writing. When I do too much pre-planning, I find myself stuck writing only from that, and the characters aren’t free to think or behave outside their box. I know that sounds crazy, but the way I really get to know the characters is by putting them in situations in the story and watching how they respond. When I give them freedom, often they surprise me by saying or doing something I didn’t expect. Those are really fun moments in writing, when I lean back in my chair, eyes wide, saying, “Oh, that’s what happened to her when she was little!” or “Oh, that’s the reason he’s such a jerk!”
That all leads to my third stage of character-development: editing. Once I’ve written the book and discovered what it’s all about, I go back and re-write to make it work. This part is a lot harder, by the way, than writing the first draft. Because by this point, the personalities are fully-developed and I have to make sure their actions and reactions are fully in character. Sometimes I find their backstory isn’t consistent with actions I need them to take, so it’s back to Square One to get into their heads. This is when I might have to pull out the big guns and sit a character down at my computer and “interview” him. Or I might have to write a scene I know isn’t going to show up in the book but that will tell me what led a character to behave the way she did.
If you’re an aspiring writer, by the way, for heaven’s sake don’t take my method as a how-to manual. I’m sure there are better and more efficient ways to get to know a character. But that’s essentially how I’ve settled into the process at this stage. Ask me a year from now, and I might be doing it differently!
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