Getting to Know Your Characters

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How do you bring a character’s spark to life?

Your characters are real people. They just exist on a different plane. And just because they’re your characters doesn’t mean you have instant access to every fiber of their being. You have to get to know them. To write your very best work, you have to get inside their heads.

You can sketch out a physical description, or make a list of their favorite things, but these details only get you so far. What you want is a layered and textured being. You want a character that reaches out and grabs your readers. A charismatic, complex person who walks into your story and demands your readers take notice.

If you put your characters in dynamic situations, the sparks will fly.

The Bartender
Your character walks into a bar and…I’m being serious. Make them walk into a bar. Have them sit down and start talking to the bartender. What kind of drink do they order? Are they shy or outgoing? What kinds of topics do they bring up in conversation? Why kinds of things do they hide? What kind of bar did they pick to walk into in the first place?

The Bartender situation is a place where your characters can relax, and where they can open up and talk about themselves. Plop yourself invisibly onto the bar stool next to them and start taking notes.

The Stuck Elevator
Your character gets stuck in an elevator with two other people. Any two other people—a little old lady and a serial killer, or an investment banker and a sex worker. Whoever. You get to choose. How does your character react? Do they sit silently and wait? Do they try to crawl through the ceiling to see what’s going on? Do they ignore the other two people or band together with them? How long can they remain in the stuck elevator before they crack?

The Stuck Elevator is a place where you can incrementally increase or decrease the pressure on your character to experiment with their reactions. Being stuck in an elevator for one hour is a lot different than being stuck for three days. The situation also depends on if your character drew the serial killer, or the investment banker card. In this situation you’re going to play the fly on the wall, and record everything you see.

The Family Reunion
Your character ends up at their family reunion. Where is it held? How many people are there? Is your character excited, or totally dreading it? Or are they actually the type of character that crashes someone else’s family reunion?

The Family Reunion is where you get to discover your character’s roots. You can meet some of their family members, observe any mommy and/or daddy issues in action, and laugh (or cringe) at their hilarious drunk uncle. Whether we love or hate our families the fact remains, they significantly influence who we are. Tag along on your character’s family picnic and make your own Freudian investigations.

The Lottery
Your character wins the lottery. This one seems easy—because you probably already have some ideas about how you would spend the money. But you are not your character. And the things we choose to spend money on are one of the most telling giveaways to our personality. Does your character donate their winnings to a nonprofit working for justice? Or do they decide to build a medieval castle in the middle of Montana? How do they react when they find out they won? Are they pompous about it or disbelieving?

The Lottery is where you can peel back some layers and follow the clues into your character’s subconscious. The issues even they didn’t know they had will rise to the surface. As a bonus, you’ll also find out things about your cast of supporting characters. Your characters’ friends and family will most likely also undergo changes in the wake of so much money. Pose as a reporter and interview your character on what’s going on with them after the big win.

Once you get the hang of placing your character in dynamic situations, you won’t even have to think about it. Some situations you’ll end up throwing out, but others will surprise you. Your character will take off running, and as you rush after them, you’ll suddenly realize that you two are barreling through the story together. The only thing you have to do then is keep up.

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