Learning Who Your Characters Are

I am not one of those writers whose characters talk to them, not in the literal hearing-voices-in-your-head way, nor do I like using that as a metaphor for character creation. Probably because I like to be in control. I also think that’s why I never got into role-playing games; I didn’t want other people’s ideas interfering with my own and changing them. I talk to other people about my characters sometimes, and have used ideas others have given me, but I don’t think that’s the same; I’m still in charge of my own characters.

But enough about me wearing a crown and being The Mighty Dictator.

What techniques do I use?

1. Give character a name and gender. This in itself often tells me other things; for example, to pick a name I might have to know the character’s ethnicity.

2. Figure out the character’s function in the story. Sometimes, often, this comes before name and gender.

3. I don’t write the biography of my character. I usually make things up as I need them, or as they occur to me. A novel character might be the sidekick in the previous novel. Before, we know he had two sisters. Now that he’s a protagonist, those sisters need names and problems.

4. If I get stuck, sometimes I make notes. I’ve tried the “list of adjectives to describe X” technique with some success. Also, “what are X’s problems, and what in his character made these problems terrible to him?”

A technique I’ve used a couple of times as a starting point is to use the characteristics of a particular Zodiac sign or personality type diagram.

5. I write scenes with the character included. Dialogue is most fun and works well for me, and is most likely to produce revelations. Arguments are good. Losing control is good. What is she like then? I don’t think a writer can really understand a character until they’ve written her into scenes, because the way she is in your head is never exactly the same as she appears on paper (at least for me). Tipsheets are fine, but it’s showing the character in action that makes her live.

6. Finally, there’s letting go. Sometimes I stop and do something else for a while, like reading or going for a walk. When I go back to work, sometimes my subconscious has come up with connections I hadn’t realized before, such as “Josefina’s mother was a union organizer,” which I can then work into the story.

Related posts:
Caring About Your Characters – Or Not.
Zero Drafting.

Published by Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen’s writing showcases her voracious lifelong love of books. She reads over 120 new books each year, especially historical romance, fantasy, and space opera, and incorporates these genres into her erotic fiction. Her first erotic novel, The Duchess, Her Maid, The Groom and Their Lover (Harlequin Spice, December 2008), was translated into French and German. Her second Spice novel, The Moonlight Mistress (December 2009), was translated into Italian and nominated for a RT Reviews Reviewers’ Choice Award. Her third novel is The Duke & The Pirate Queen (December 2010). She has also published erotic short stories as Elspeth Potter. When not writing, Victoria conducts research in libraries and graveyards, lectures about writing and selling erotica, and speaks at literary conventions on topics such as paranormal romance, urban fantasy, erotic science fiction/fantasy, and the empowerment of women through unconventional means. Her daily writing blog features professional writing and marketing tips, genre discussion, book reviews, and author interviews. She also guest blogs for Heroes & Heartbreakers and The Criminal Element. She lives in Philadelphia.

9 replies on “Learning Who Your Characters Are”

  1. I’ve found that if you can get your character in a dangerous, catastrophic, or even life-threatening situation, you can learn a lot about them that way. Even if it’s outside the story, or even if you don’t write it down. Just thinking about it can help.

    I had a character that would learn about others by doing this. He wouldn’t threaten to kill them or anything like that, but he’d shake them up somehow and see how they react. I learned a lot about him that way, too.

  2. Me, I’m one of those “I hold conversations with the voices in my head” types. LOL! As you say, though, it’s usually not possible to know everything about a character until she’s been written into scenes. I learned loads of stuff about Emily as I started writing her story – and she has surprised me many times!

    She’s knocked me for a few loops, actually, as has Davide!

    I just wish they’d let me in on some stuff sooner, you know? ;)

    Fascinating topic, btw. I’m sure everyone’s process is a bit different, though.

  3. I really liked how you started by saying, “I am not one of those writers whose characters talk to them.” I feel the same way. They don’t talk, they don’t beg for their stories to be told. They don’t “want to do anything” I don’t want them to do.

    I haven’t used character interviews or similar techniques, but I do see how having a set of such brainstorming tools is very useful. I had a mentor who liked to use Tarot cards for plotting and character – it really does work because all it is, is an association exercise.

    I found #6 to be most useful – I daydream around them and they get more fleshed out in the process. But they still don’t talk to me. I wish they would. It would make writing dialogue much easier.

  4. I’m with Tsera! I often write a big conflict scene from later in the story really early on, because that’s when I learn most about my characters. I rarely write in a linear fashion, and I’m always layering stuff in. (This does make partials a real PITA though! ;-) I feel it’s crucial for me to know the character inside out because they lead the way through the story. The reader must believe in them and their convictions in order to follow. That’s why I often start off slow, as I get to know them, then speed up when they are whole in my mind.

    Enjoying your new blog immensely, Vickie!

  5. Tsera wrote:
    I’ve found that if you can get your character in a dangerous, catastrophic, or even life-threatening situation, you can learn a lot about them that way.

    Definitely! It’s a great way to get plot ideas flowing, too–how did they get there?

    Ms. Menozzi wrote:
    Fascinating topic, btw. I’m sure everyone’s process is a bit different, though.

    Completely. I’ve found I even work differently on different stories.

    jeannielin wrote:
    I had a mentor who liked to use Tarot cards for plotting and character

    that sounds like a GREAT idea. I might have to get help from a card-reading friend, but I still want to try that.

    Saskia wrote:
    I rarely write in a linear fashion, and I’m always layering stuff in.

    I do a bit of that, but I can’t let myself run free, or I’ll write all the fun bits and then have to rush around for the transitions. Not that I would know that from EXPERIENCE or anything…lalala.

  6. I tend to learn about my characters by actually writing, although I start off by knowing their GMC, which always helps form their character. This means that once the first draft is done I go back and layer in the things I’ve learned.

    I like Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs for the times when I become a little stuck.

  7. victoria, i thought this was a terrific post. i’m going to have my mentee read as we’re working on this exact thing, building characters. one thing i think is important to remember, however, right from the formation of the char, is what conflict s/he’s going to have. when you mentioned the function of the char, this could go along with that. the conflict is built right into the char’s personality and/or history, so when i invent one, that’s a big part.

  8. Thanks, Mima! Yes, indeed conflict. I should have given that its own line, even–“what does she want and why can’t she have it?”

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