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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?