Understanding Your Characters #atozchallenge #amwriting

For pantsters and plotters both, understanding your characters is essential. We need to know who we’re writing about to be able to outline an accurate plot or to be able to write the scenes, following our characters lead.

But how do we learn about our characters?

file0001673554203 by clarita

Outline them. Many authors do this, in the form of character interviews or spreadsheets, detailing their likes and dislikes, their tastes and feelings and goals. You can quiz them on their favorite colors, foods, and clothes, or take personality tests on their behalf. All of this can give you a record, a kind of outline of who they are.

Write them into situations. Even if it has nothing to do with the book, and could never be used, putting a character in an odd scene can help delineate who they are. What would they do in an ice cream shoppe? How would they handle an anger management therapy class? And how would they behave (and what would they wear) at a masquerade? (My friend and fellow blogger, Christina Wehner, once took this to another level and suggested inserting characters into situations from other books. What would Scarlett O’Hara do in the Hunger Games, for instance? What about putting Katniss in Pride and Prejudice or Harry Potter in Twilight?

Write out their history. This can be anything from an outline to selected scenes of “important moments” in their past. How did these two characters first meet? If it doesn’t happen in your book, writing about it can still help you understand them, because they know how they met, and it’s part of their history. (For example, a scene of how Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley met and became friends would be enlightening for both their characters, showing who they were and who they became by knowing each other.)

Learn how they differ from you. Many times, characters are bits and pieces of who we are, but they are rarely exact copies, so knowing how they differ from us can help us make sure we are writing them–and not us–into the stories and scenes. It can help us identify their voice, instead of transposing our own on them (as we talked about in “Trying Too Hard.”)


All these things can help us learn who we’re writing about, but ultimately, the writing itself (or planning, if you’re a plotter) will shape and determine who these people are. Because their histories and likes and all the rest are there for one purpose: helping you write the story of what they’re up to now. And what they did when they cut their first tooth, or had their first day of school, may matter very little in the grand scheme of the novel you’re writing.

Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren

Photo by clarita, Creative Commons

12 thoughts on “Understanding Your Characters #atozchallenge #amwriting

  1. I once tried writing an outline about one of my characters, but somehow it made her feel less real…or less like how I imagined she would be. She was hard to pin down. Maybe she’s simply a character who needs to remain an enigma? I’m not sure. She’s been a very frustrating character!


    1. Perhaps she saw it as intrusive and thus gave you no proper answers? Have you tried writing her in various situations and seeing how she responds? She might find it less invasive. 🙂


  2. A great list, Andrea. Writing characters into situations certainly helps better understand them — likes, dislikes, feelings, whether projected by us or taking a shape of their own. I like your friend’s example. Very cool.
    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It helps to write independent stories with your characters (either prequel or around the same time as the book), so you know more about them outside the confines of the current story. I’ve grown up with a lot of my characters, so I know them inside and out at this point. For example, I’ve known the original members of the first generation of my Atlantic City books since we were eleven years old, and I’ve known my original Russian characters since I was 13 and they were in their late teens. It’s also really special to go on the entire journey through life with a character, from birth into adulthood.


    1. That is very neat, and I like how you’ve know your characters since you were their age and longer. I’ve just barely done that, and it’s been interesting. Writing about characters who were once older then me, and then passing them by and being older than them.


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