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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Tipsy Tuesdays ~ Before You Kill Your Darlings Give Them Life!

Tipsy Tuesday
July 8, 2014


Bringing Life To Fictional Beings

Today's Tipsy Tuesday brings you tips on
Getting To Know Your Characters!



Three words a writer never wants to see in red.

When a story idea first pops into your head, more than likely, you have a general idea of what your main character is like. You might visualize their physical appearance, how they walk, and talk. You probably have a name in mind. But, do you really know them?

It's not enough to create a person, describe their appearance, and give them a name. You can't just create a "person" and send them off to mosey through your story. Flat characters will make for a flat story. No one wants to read about plastic people on paper. They want characters they can relate to, sympathize with, love, or hate-- characters that can draw them into not just their life but their world. 

You have to get to know your characters, and not just the main characters, all of your characters-- even the secondary ones. You have to know everything about them. You have to know them better than you know your friends, your own family, better than you know yourself.

One of the purposes of your story is to show your character's growth. Your characters must grow.

How can you show their growth without knowing where they are now, where they are going, and why? What motivates them? Unless, you truly know your characters inside out, you simply cannot answer these questions.

So, how do we get to know these imaginary new best friends (or enemies)? How do we convince them to tell us their deepest, darkest secrets, their dreams, their greatest fears?

First, you breathe life into them.


If you pump enough oxygen into them, pour enough blood into their veins, they will breathe, they will acquire minds of their own, they will develop freewill, they will live. Now that they are alive, you can sit down with them and really get to know them.



This is the system I use for my characters. All of my characters. If they make even a one line appearance in my novel, they get interviewed. I highly recommend this method. It's worth the time it takes to write characters that readers will actually want to read about.

This is my method, and it works for me, but being flexible and doing what works best for you will serve you better than trying to emulate my exact process. I'm sharing my way with you as an example to help you get started.

I have a file folder for each of my minor characters and 2" three-ring binders for my main characters.
Get Yours Here!
This four-pack of binders is my favorite because I also like to color code my character notes on my storyboard and in my Scrivener corkboard too. This lets me use a specific color for my protagonist, antagonist, etc.
My interview yields profiles that would make the FBI jealous. I leave no stone unturned.

By the time I finish the interview process, I know more about the character than I know about my spouse of 19 years.
Let's begin with the main characters. 
I divide the binder into five sections.

I begin the first section with the basics. 

The very first page is a picture of my character. I'm very visual and I like having the idea in my head on paper. I often create characters by blending various pictures I find online.

Next, I write down general information: full name, age, date of birth, height, weight, eye color, hair type (texture), color, and style. 

Below that I will give a more detailed physical description listing skin type/complexion-- do they have any freckles, moles, birthmarks, scars, tattoos? 

I also write down physical characteristics: build, gait, specific mannerisms like nail-biting, fidgeting, hair twirling.

I turn to the next page and write down how I feel the character might dress. Is he fond of leather pants? Does she only wear cardigans? Leave some space to make notes, you'll learn more as you begin the interview process.

On the next page I create an overview of the character's emotional traits. Is she anxious? Is he outgoing? You'll want to leave a few blank sheets so that you can expand on this general information later.

Tip #1:  Even if you don't believe in astrology, I have found that reading astrological profiles are very helpful in creating a character's personality. You don't have to make the personality match what would be the character's real sign- you are just using it as a reference to pick and choose the traits from.

The second section is for the character's background. 

I create a family tree on the first page, complete with names and a section at the bottom for notes on each family member (this is helpful when you create profiles for each family member later).

On the next page, I write down everything I can think of in terms of the character's relationships with each of these family members- this will help me create the right interview questions.

The next page is the character's educational profile. I follow that with notes about any childhood friends, relationships with them, and finally any problems that stemmed from any relationships with friends and family, as well as any internal conflicts the character had as a child and why.

I like to include a list of the character's strengths and weaknesses based upon their childhood relationships.

On the last page I write down the character's views on religion, family, politics, money, etc. Many of these ideas are learned in childhood, and I make note of anyone specifically influential in these areas and why. 

Again, leave yourself space in each area, several blank pages in fact. You will learn much more during the interview process.

Section three is for the interview. 

You'll want to create a list of questions that fit the idea and plot of your story.
Questions are designed to really get to the heart of your character's motivation. Ask what they want out of life. Ask them if there is anything standing in their way of getting it. 

Find out how they feel about their family.

Inquire about their hobbies, interests, talents.

Ask them what they're hiding, what secrets do they keep?

Include questions about how they see themselves and how they think others see them.

Finish the interview by asking them to describe themselves to you.

You are the psychologist and they are your patient, the interview is confidential, they can be completely open and honest.
My interview is typically 50-100 questions long, and I'll often spend a day on each main character. I find that the characters are always more talkative than I expect them to be.

I go back to the binder and fill in any information I've gathered during the interview in the proper sections. You might think of more questions to ask as you list these new details, make a note of them, and go sit down with your character again. It's imperative that you get all the answers you seek.
By the time you complete your interview well enough to fill in the blanks in your notebook, you should have a pretty good picture of what motivates your character-- love, greed, revenge, self-preservation, etc.

This is where section four comes in.

 Write down that motive!


 This section is where you will keep notes outlining what is responsible for this motivation, what feeds it, what changes it.
In section four, you'll start making a list of what changes your character is making and why. All of the things on the list will revolve around their motivation.

When it comes to creating characters, motive is everything.

Section five is where I keep the odds and ends of my character's life.

What type of car do they drive? I add pictures of the house they live in. Sometimes I make lists of states they've lived in. I even include their favorite recipes. I also keep any research notes on their hobbies here.

You'll have a pretty full binder for your protagonist, antagonist, and any other major players in your story.
For the rest, an abbreviated interview and a simple file folder or three-pronged folder will suffice.

Tip #2:  Your character's answers should be just that, theirs. Do not give voice to them, or offer the answers you think they'd provide. Really listen. They will speak to you, in their own voice. Don't think about what the answers are, they are not yours to give.

Once you have spent time talking with your new friend, maybe over coffee, you'll become invested in them. They become real to you, not just on paper, not just in your mind, but part of your daily life.

You will grow to love or hate them. It will show in your writing. If you have deep feelings for these people, then so will your readers.

That's what takes your story from something one reads
to something one experiences.


photo credit:


Tip # 3:  Recommended Reading: "Breathing Life Into Your Characters- How to give your characters emotional and psychological depth" by Rachel Ballon, Ph.D.
Get Your Copy Here!

Now that I've admitted publicly, I sit around talking to people that aren't really there...

I'd like to hear from you!

What method do you use to get to know your characters?
Can you see an advantage to interviewing all of your characters?



Colette Pedersen said...

I make playlists on my iPod for my characters. It helps me to understand them better. My kids can usually tell whose playlist we are listening to by the type of songs that are playing. My dragons even have their own songs!

DM Kilgore said...

I love it! Music is a HUGE part of my writing life as well. =)

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