Sometimes characters appear in your mind fully-formed, and sometimes you have to really fight to get to know them. I usually fall somewhere in the middle, but with my current work-in-progress, I struggled with my female main character, Presley. I knew little pieces of her personality, her various stages of insecurity, a few likes and dislikes. But it wasn’t until about ten chapters into writing the first draft that everything about her finally clicked into place.
On the other hand, I felt like I knew her love interest, Jake, inside and out from the very first time I even considered writing their story. We still had to get to know each a little more, but it wasn’t as much of a fight as it was with Presley.
Getting to know fictional people sounds like a strange idea. Can’t you just make up whatever you want? You are the creator after all. And yes, you can – to an extent. But there a few things you can do to make them feel fully-formed, consistent and real to your readers. Here are a few ways I’ve tried and found helpful in the past:
Take Personality Tests
I am partial to Myers-Briggs but there are tons of different types out there that are worth exploring. I usually have enough of an idea of my character to take the quiz as I were them. But the results and reports that are generated based on how I answered the questions are treasure troves of information. Strengths and weaknesses, communication styles, relationship struggles, recommended occupations. Reading through those reports not only gives me a great understanding of every facet of my character but it always gives me tons of ideas for scenes that will challenge them and add conflict.
I am sure you are thinking “How on earth would a thesaurus help me develop a character?” Well, these are a very special type of thesaurus. I go into much more detail here, but Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s books are a must-have for any writer. Since writing my previous post, they’ve also released an emotional wound thesaurus that helps you key into each character’s personal struggles and backstory. It’s brilliant, and once you’ve identified your character’s traits, there’s supporting information that tells you how they might behave in certain situations.
Think Beyond the Story
Just like with real people, your characters will likely have pieces of themselves hidden away for you to find. Personality traits that may not be appearing on the page but are lurking in shadows. Backstory that may not be relevant to this specific story but still made that character who he is. For example, before the start of my novel, Presley was a little bit of a party girl. You don’t ever see that on the screen – you don’t need to. But weaving it into a quick mention can show how her past is impacting her present.
There’s only so much prep work you can do before diving in. Like with Presley, I didn’t really feel like I knew her until I’d written a pretty big chunk of the draft. Once I hit that breaking point, everything started to flow and make sense. I will have to pay close attention when revising those first chapters to make sure the Presley I found later is reflected at the beginning. But that’s why for so many writers, the first draft is synonymous with the “discovery draft.” You’re telling yourself the story, introducing yourself to the characters and things will fall into place.