Friday, February 17, 2012

Getting to Know Your Characters

Robert Frost wrote in the introduction to his Collected Poems (1939), “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” This doesn’t mean writers should be producing tear-jerkers. I take it to mean that the writer must know her characters, and this is the hardest part of writing for many.

Some writers rely on the standard character’s biography, creating an entire back story of education, family structure, coming of age experiences, and more. Some of this is very useful, but for me this kind of writing doesn’t get at who this character really is.

One of the most successful approaches for me is asking the character how he or she feels about a current social situation or crisis. How does she feel about it, and why? This is where I just start writing and wait to see what comes out. If I’m trying to discover a character who completed school some years ago, I might find myself writing about where she chose to sit in the classroom and why. Was she a good student but shy, so she stayed away from the front row, or was he someone who’d had a run-in with the professor and felt an ethical revulsion for him, so sat in the back of the room. Letting the character ruminate on these experiences tells me far more than a biography, no matter how long.

I also like to know why my characters do things. If one character has a hobby and practices it regularly, I want to know why. What is the character thinking while working on knitting or cooking or gardening or anything else? We are drawn to different things, and I like to hear the reasons for our passions. If someone is willing to spend hours every week on something for which he or she may or may not be paid, I want to know why. Our reasons run deeper than many of us realize, and this is where a character ruminating can generate fascinating revelations that deepen a story and even shape it.

In the quote above, Robert Frost was talking about the essential point. We care about those we know and understand. And that means more than height, marital status, number of siblings, the way we drink our coffee. It means all those things we know about our oldest and dearest friends from listening and sharing over the years. Only for writers, we have to get to all that listening and sharing in a matter of weeks. We have to let our characters talk, and then we and the readers will know them and care what happens in their stories.


  1. I agree Susan. Those biography things never work for me because I believe the character evolves as we put them into situations that test them -- and allow us to learn about them!


  2. I like to write scenes between 2 characters that have no relevance to the story line and to chose characters that you might not see interact in the narrative. I spend a LOT of time with my characters off the page. I was recently quite surprised when one of my characters told me that for years he'd had a crush on Dolly Parton! It seemed so out of character for him.....

  3. I tend to playact the character whose POV I'm in. I never was much of an actor until I started I feel as though I can play any part, even the bad guy in a suspense novel.

  4. Thank you, Jan and Kathleen and Pat, for your comments. I find it interesting that those who are active writers almost never recommend the character's biography exercise. We've apparently learned the hard way what works and what doesn't. Kathleen, our characters do surprise us. Dolly Parton! That's great. I think your experience, Pat, is very interesting because we are becoming other people when we write. I love the playacting idea.