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?
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