Getting to Know Your Characters

You know how I wrote about my recent return from a trip to upstate New York? Well, what I didn’t mention was the poodle. The paranoid poodle, who has been slinking around ever since I returned, as if she’s sure I’m going to beat her with a wooden spoon at any second.

Lily, Poodle Muse Extraordinaire

I swear, I have never beaten her, with or without a wooden spoon, but poodles are very intelligent…in a paranoid sort of way.

Finally, this morning, I invited her up on the bed and spent forty-five minutes brushing her. After five minutes, she was still eyeing me suspiciously (“What?” I asked. “Do you think I’m going to disappear while leaving the brush behind to cover my tracks?!”), but did consent to rest her head on the pillow.

After ten minutes, her eyes drifted closed.

After twenty, she twisted to lie fully upon her back, legs splayed wide and belly exposed–so I’d get the hint and start rubbing it.

Now she’s sprawled beside me, legs twitching occasionally in a squirrel-chasing dream, snoring and contented. I guess all she needed was time.

The Power of Time

I think people–both those in the real world and those populating our fiction–operate much the same way. Spend too much time away from them, and they may become a bit withdrawn. You don’t know what’s going on in their day-to-day lives; maybe you don’t care; maybe you don’t even know them anymore.

Yeah, even characters (especially characters?!) can get a bit paranoid. It’s amazing what a little concentrated time can do for your relationship.

What do I mean by “spending time”? You can’t exactly invite your characters out for dinner and a movie, after all, so you may have to get a bit creative. Fortunately, you’re a writer. Creative is your best thing!

“Character Date” Ideas!

I’ve got a host of juicy date-with-character ideas for you, and I can’t wait to share them. I can’t wait to hear YOUR ideas, too! I’m spreading them out over the coming week because–let’s face it–six zillion ideas and exercises all in one post can be a smidge overwhelming. This is the conversation that goes on in my head when I access one of those awesome, 500-link or 800-ideas posts:

Excitable Cheryl: Ooh! I have to try that writing exercise! And that one! And that one, too!

Voice-of-Reason Cheryl: That will take you three hours. Maybe five hours. You’re supposed to be working on your WIP.

Excitable Cheryl: But these writing prompts would be a great warm-up for my writing session….

Voice-of-Reason Cheryl: Okay, ONE writing prompt might be okay–

Excitable Cheryl: Only one?! How will I ever pick just ONE?

Voice-of-Reason Cheryl: Maybe you should just bookmark the post and come back to it later….

Does “later” ever come? Seldom. Usually, by then, I’ve moved on to some other shiny goodness.

So I want to share some of the exercises I try when I’m feeling a little distant from my creative work. And I figured it would be more manageable if I shared them over the course of the next week.

This list is by no means comprehensive. Instead, think of the list as a starting point. Better yet, ask your character what he or she would most enjoy doing with you…you might be surprised to get a reply!

Tactic #1: Write a Journal Entry…

…as your character, either a free-form response to their situation, another character, or plot events, or as a response to a journaling prompt such as one of the following:

  • What is your greatest fear?
  • What do you dream of becoming?
  • What are you good at doing?
  • Would you ever (or have you ever)…
    • Run away from home?
    • Take off your clothes in public?
    • Kill someone?
    • Cheat on a test?
    • Lie to your best friend or boyfriend/girlfriend?
  • What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you?
  • What do you hate most about your life?
  • What do you love most about your life?
  • Who is your greatest hero?

Tactic #2: Conduct an Interview

There’s always the strategy of interviewing your character…which can be great, but can also get you sidetracked into answering a lot of questions that aren’t really relevant to your character’s thoughts, emotions, and inner life. If you go this route, be sure to focus on the questions that resonate with you. If your character wants to “talk,” you’re probably on the right track!

What strategies do YOU use to get to know your characters better? Do you have any favorite resources I should add to the list? Please share in the comments!

Also…be sure to check back on Wednesday and Thursday for more “character date” ideas to help you get to know YOUR characters.

The hidden price of "productivity" every writer needs to know -

You’ve probably read the same tips I have: Have a smart phone? Check Facebook while standing in line at the post office! Respond to Twitter messages while waiting for your dentist! Catch up on your news feed while sitting on the pot! For years, I thought the path to increased productivity was to squeeze in MORE–more […]


  1. says

    Excellent thoughts! Thanks so much for linking to my post. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    • says

      Hi there! I thought your post was one of the best on the subject, so thank YOU for sharing it :). And thanks for your comment, too! I love your blog.

  2. says

    Fun! And now I’m picturing the characters in my unfinished works twitching with indignation as they languish neglected and forlorn at the bottom of the “maybe one day” drawer.

    I’ve tried the character interview technique and found it helpful. There’s a twist to this exercise that can be interesting – as you’re interviewing your character, pay attention to the things he/she doesn’t want to disclose and how he/she chooses to gloss over or sugar-coat them in the interview. Apparently my characters are a devious lot…

    • says

      Hi Kern, I love your “twist” to the interview because it skips past the details to the heart of the character. My one complaint with character interviews is that they can degenerate into listing a bunch of information that ultimately doesn’t give you any insight into the character’s inner life and motivation…and you’ve just provided a great way to get past this problem. I’m adding to the post!!