Friday, August 5, 2011

Character Studies

Some writers always begin with a character, then when they fully understand the person who has been following them around, they see the story that character is leading them to.

For me, I usually begin with the idea of a story. And when it expands and feels large enough to move to the next step, I take a look at the people who would live that story—who are the ones to make it come to life.

When I get to know my characters, the story blossoms. If I don't get to know them, the story falters. When my words feel flat, that's a signal for me to look at a few things, chief among them my character studies.

I have a three-page list of things I use to develop the people who populate my manuscript. It's a compilation of several, plus things I've considered on my own. I'm happy to email it to you if you'd like.

What's important to any character study, or list of traits you use, is that you don't go down the list and answer each question. Yuck. Talk about boring. What I suggest you do is have the list out and handy while you practice writing about your character in a stream-of-consciousness style.

To further understand the character you're getting to know, write some of that character study in first person. It's amazing what you'll learn, and the subplots that will become possibilities.

What about you? What things do you like to do to get to know your characters? Do you get to know them before you begin writing, or do they get more fully formed as you go?

CR: Snake Skin by CJ Lyons.

It's all better with friends.


  1. This is very helpful, for me. I too usually have an idea or some thoughts about a story, then try and find the characters. This time, I tried something a little different. I wrote an 'interview' with my character, as if I'd sat down in a bar or restaurant and started asking him questions. He talked. I wrote it as if it was word for word, like an article with the questions and the answers. So far, it's helped a lot.

  2. How about a little bit of "all of the above?" :) My current (contracted) book is now in the hands of the publisher and I'm waiting on the copy edits.

    It started as a concept and one female MC. But the setting was wrong. After several scene/setting changes, and a bit of character tweaking, it began to come together.

    Can you tell I'm a pantser?

    I'd love to see your list.

    peg [at] peggyblannphifer [dot] com

  3. Kurt, I love it when your characters spill their guts. Great idea to interview them. How do you know if they're tellin you the truth? (Sorry . . . old habit.)

    Peg, I've emailed you my list. Let me know if you think something else should be on it. Isn't it amazing how setting is also a character?

    And uber-congratulations on your new book!

  4. I usually start with a character. If I'm stuck at some point I try and "write" the characters story. I write it down as if they are telling me their life.
    I would love to see your list. Maybe it can help me expand what my characters tell me.

    echartonwrites at gmail space com

  5. Elaine, getting to know your characters is awesome.

    I've emailed the list to you. Same goes as with Peg Phifer, if you think of something that should be added, let me know.

    Have fun with your writing!

  6. I'm on the sixth book in my Biscuit McKee mystery series, and I'm finding that some minor characters from previous books (people I thought were just one-time walkons) have insinuated themselves into this story. Now I need to get to know them better.

    I'd love to see your list. Thanks for offering to share it.

    fran at franstewart dot com

  7. Hey, Fran. I just hit 'send' on the character study pages. If there's something that needs added, please let me know.

    I have a secondary character that is yammering for her own story. Maybe the next one. And, I've got this minor character, who hasn't even appeard in print yet, who I know already I'm gonna have to control. She's a mouthy firebrand, who has a backbone and isn't afraid to poke it in your face . . . so to speak.

    I hope you find the list helpful.

  8. Okay . . . just read that first sentence. Sorry to all the editors out there. Too late to change it now, and guess what . . . I may not have if I'd known right away. Maybe. But probably. Before you noticed.


  9. I am lucky enough to have a large character base to draw from since I have been a hair stylist for over 40 years. You want characters? I have had some characters in my life and chair. lol But the story that begins in my mind is usually formed around someone in my life. Names are changed to protect the guilty and the innocent, of course. When I write, I feel the characters emotions because I have lived with their emotions in real life and know how they would react to a given situation.
    And that's the way it works for me.

  10. I can really see how a hair stylist would be a different version of the bartender everyone feels comfortable enough around to tell everything to. But it's your skill as a listener and an observer that so many personalities took shape in your mind.

    So, while Kurt interviews his characters, you set them in a chair for a nice shampoo and a cut. Very cool.