Author Toolbox Blog Hop: Getting To Know You

It’s time for the Author Toolbox Blog Hop! The hop takes place the third Wednesday of every month (minus November/December) and focuses on the sharing of resources and learning tools for authors.

Stop by the hop page and check out all the participants and their posts this month! Also check out #AuthorToolboxBlogHop on Twitter.

Building Character

Creating characters is much like meeting someone new in real life: when you first meet them, you know nothing about them–their personality, what they like, what they hate, what they do for a living, who their friends and family are. You only know what you can immediately observe, like their appearance, the sound of their voice, and their mannerisms. And even then, most of those things can be misleading because people act differently around new people and they cultivate what they look like. It takes time to get to know someone and start to understand them. It takes time for your readers to get to know your characters too, but most importantly, it takes you, the writer, time to get to know them as well. And you’re the person who’s going to have to know them inside and out by the end of the book.

Some authors build characters before they even begin to write, working out their entire life story on paper first, but I’ve never been like this. I also feel that even though this gives you a sketch, it doesn’t fill in all the details until you actually start working with that character. Just as a potential employee can give you a detailed resume, you still learn new things when you interview them. I’m the type of writer who likes to learn my characters as I write them. Sometimes they really surprise me. Of course you go in with an idea of who they are, but you let them really start to express it in the framework of the story.

What are some important ways for you–and the reader–to get to know your characters? It can be a bit like peeling an onion, going down layer after layer until you get to the core. Then again, some characters will never show you their core–because that’s who they are as people.

  • Physical. As I said, the first thing we take in about a person is how they look. But most people also build their appearance. They choose clothes they like, do their hair the way they prefer, and decorate and adorn themselves to show off their personality. The way your character looks says a lot about them. Are they a wholesome, clean-cut type or a wild and rebellious type with neon green hair and piercings? This can say a lot about them with a single glance–and it can say deeper things about them, too. For example, in my Siren Song series, my main character, June, has spent her life being ashamed of and terrified by her supernatural powers, and of how other people react to them. As such, she’s covered in tattoos, to distract other people from that fact about herself and to give them something else to focus on. Sometimes we use our looks to direct attention elsewhere.
  • Their preferences. As you get to know a character better, you’ll find out what they like and dislike. Their favorite foods, movies, music, and color can say a lot about them, especially if the information is delivered at the relevant time. Maybe your character hates the color pink because her mother decorated her entire bedroom in it as a child. This not only says something about the character, but about her family dynamic and feelings toward her mother.
  • Emotions. Now we’re getting deeper. As we see the emotions your character goes through, it tells us a lot about their personality. Especially negative emotions–what frightens them, stresses them out, or makes them angry. This can say a lot about how they handle the world around them and what sort of emotional and mental constitution they have.
  • Reactions. How your characters react to things that happen to and around them is a very important key to their personality. It shows their level of resilience, morality, perseverance, and empathy. How a character reacts to a dramatic or important situation can say more about them than any other character trait you give them–and it tells the reader a lot, too.
  • How other people react to them. It’s also equally important how your characters react toward each other. How people react reflects their personalities, but it also shows how the other person projects a personality that people respond to. Even if that projected personality is all a sham, the fact that other people react to it tells us how well or poorly constructed it is.

Those are just a few tips for getting to know a character. Sometimes the best part about writing is the little things you discover along the way, things you couldn’t have worked out beforehand. It’s like getting to know a new friend. How do you get to know your characters?

31 Comments

Leave a Comment

  1. Nicely said, Megan. I especially resonated with the part where you said an author can have pages of details about a character and still not know that character well until the author is deep into the story. As you also pointed out, understanding the “why” behind a character’s traits is sometimes more important than knowing the trait, itself.

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  2. A nice list. I like how most of these boil down to characters’ choices and their past experiences. Building character is thus not just a matter of characterization, but is something that is always connected to the story.

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  3. Thanks for the ideas on character development. I tend to build my main characters through dialogue along with a little description. I should spend more time on how others react to them. Good post!

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  4. I like to develop a base persona to my characters, but I really feel like I can flesh-out who they are best as I’m writing. Too much character development before I start writing leaves me feeling stuck in a box, I like to be free-flowing.

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  5. My favorite sentence of your post: Sometimes the best part about writing is the little things you discover along the way, things you couldn’t have worked out beforehand.

    I love this part of the process.

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  6. Great post. I more often than not, start with character. The stories I love to read are normally character driven with a good plot as well. Enjoyed reading. Like the list too.

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  7. I really like Alex’s suggestion in writing down what the MC thinks about all the other characters. I love you line on how creating a new character is like meeting a new friend. I am pretty picky when it comes to that 🙂

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    1. Definitely! And sometimes we meet someone and it turns out we don’t really like them…but hopefully we don’t write characters like that, because we want our readers to like the characters!

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  8. I do work on the characters before I begin although I discover just as much as I write. As for your last point, one trick I discovered was to write down what each character thought of the other characters. It’s insightful for all.

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  9. Great checklist 🙂 My characters are always the first part of a story I think of, and I tend to write out a small scene which brings them to life. After that I plan them out them out with character quizzes and try to find pictures to represent them, but they often evolve as I write 🙂

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    1. That’s a great way of doing things! I too usually base my characters on pictures, sometimes celebrities, even though they don’t look exactly like that in my head–I just need some sort of visual reference to start with!

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