Whether you have one WIP or ten, two characters or one-hundred, staying true to who they really are, isn’t always easy. If a character does or says something out of character without a valid reason for it, it can throw readers off, or even completely out of the story. It can cause problems with believability and clarity. Not to mention, cause the reader to no longer like, understand, or even care about the character.
It’s no wonder then, that we writers want to be sure we truly understand and know our characters in order to properly tell their story.
Through my own research, there seems to be an unwritten scale for the level of knowledge the writer should know about the different types of characters. For main characters (or those with a point of view), we should know as much as, or even more than we know ourselves. For secondary characters that hold a large role and a lot of page time, we should know as good as we know a friend. For those characters that still get decent enough page time we should know as well as an acquaintance, for example of friend of a friend that we actually know. Finally, for those characters that serve a single small purpose, we should try to know at least as much as we might about the people we somewhat regularly interact with while living our lives.
Basically, the more important or the more page time a character has, the more we should know about them.
I have seen and read multiple different ways we can get to know our characters. There really is a lot of information out there, you just need to find the way that works best for you. The 3 ways I’ve got listed below for you are the ones that seemed to me to be the most effective overall to give you a clear picture of your character. I don’t think this task should be boring, feel like work, or something that you would want to procrastinate on. Therefore, I chose the 3 that were streamlined or easy enough to do (not that some of it doesn’t get hard or require a lot of thinking), fun or at least interesting, and most importantly, wouldn’t take you away from actively writing your story for very long (it should help you write your story, not take you away from it).
The Character Questionnaire
The character questionnaire is pretty much what it sounds like, a list of questions for you to fill in or answer about your character. They range from just the basics, such as physical descriptions and generic-ish personality traits to questionnaires with well over a hundred questions that dive into the basics then go deeper into things like, looking at relationships and events or situations that could have played a role in shaping the character into who they are.
You could create your own questionnaire to use whenever you need to learn more. There are plenty of articles, books, and other sources where you can gather ideas for what you should (or want) to know about your character that could help you develop your own questionnaire.
If you’d rather not have to spend the extra time creating your own, there are hundreds of options out there for you to find, premade and ready to go. My favorite place to find questionnaires is on Pinterest. I have quite a few I like saved to my writing board already. I have tried a couple out, but I found that for me, the questionnaire works best for my minor characters.
Character Sketch and Summary
If you search character sketch, you will see there seems to be more that one idea about what a character sketch is. Some of them are just like the questionnaire above, while others are a literal physical sketch (or image) of the character. For the purposes of this article, a character sketch is the literal idea even if it isn’t exactly drawn. When I think of a character sketch, I imagine a visual of the character. This does extend beyond just their physical features and into they way the carry themselves. The questions tend to seek to discover how they behave and act rather than just getting to know what their favorites are or what type of relationships they have with other characters.
I’ve included a summary to this also, because just having a physical description isn’t usually a whole lot of help in determining how a character would behave. When I write these summaries I’m only interested in including what would be necessary to their role in the story. I try to think of it like if I was writing a reference for someone to get a job. What about that person do you need to know? Focus on that information.
My favorite character sketch templates I found combine being able to see that moving visual while also getting to see their mind and personality. While I have seen some that give a list of questions or things to fill in, others are set up in a grid, boxes, or some other visual way. For example the worksheets contain multiple boxes in different sizes each headed with a topic for you to fill in however you want. This is great for brainstorming. You could write out full sentence answers or list words that apply to that section.
I tend to use the gridded, brainstorming like worksheets for those characters that would fall into that acquaintance area. I have found it easier to include information that would benefit the story without having to go overboard spending unnecessary time away.
Mini-Stories, Life Summaries, Life Events
For this final method all you need is a blank sheet of paper (physical or digital) and your mind. This is my favorite and go to option overall. After I’ve written my first draft and read it, I begin writing mini-stories or events that involve a particular character that happens outside of the original story. These could be things that happened as a child, things that they witnessed, or even things they dream about. For main characters I might also create a timeline of their life. Especially if they are damaged in some way.
For example, I don’t really ever mention what happened to my main character when her family sent her away at a young age in the story. But I do have a mini-story that plays that day out. Putting that in the story wouldn’t really make sense. While it could be entertaining or interesting to readers, it isn’t necessary to the actual story, only that she was in danger (and why) and that they made the tough decision to send her away. Another example isn’t really a mini-story, but a summary of how another character was treated while he was held as a hostage agreed on by a war truce. When the story begins, he has already been released and is back with his father, but is a known sympathizer of his uncle, his father’s enemy.
I also include family trees in with this. Only because I include notes as to how each character really feels about another. For many reasons it isn’t clear in the story right away how the characters feel about each other. It helps me to know at quick glance what they think and if that changes because of whatever reason later on.
Added Bonus to creating mini-stories, summaries, and other visuals is that you could share them with readers before or after you’ve published.
When should you learn more about your characters? I don’t think there can be a standard, general rule here either. I believe this depends on your writing style. Are you an outliner or detailed pre-planner before you begin writing? If so, then getting to know as much about your character, especially your main characters or even those secondary ones that have a lot of page time, before you begin to really write out the story (or possibly even outline) might be beneficial. Of course, there may be things you learn or that change as you actually write the story or even review your draft. So many different components needs to flow and weave together that it isn’t that uncommon for characters to behave differently than we thought they would. If the unexpected works with the story, change the character’s information to reflect it.
If you are not an outliner, if you are a pantser like me, getting the first draft written before getting to know them could work best. NOTE: This really still depends. If you have a well enough thought out idea, getting at least some of the character’s information down could be extremely useful, but if not, waiting until that draft is done is, in my opinion, fine. Honestly, sometimes I can’t define a character before the draft is done. I don’t even know they exist until I start writing about them, and know nothing about them until I see how they react to the events and situations. They literally develop through the story. Other times I could assume a character will have a ton of page time, only to realize later they are barely mentioned and vice versa.
Some of my characters are somewhat thought out before I begin a first draft. Regardless of how much or little I know about them before I began, after I’ve written the first draft and reviewed it, I create whichever character information gathering option I feel would work best for that character. This way I can compare what I’m saying about them, with what is in the story. Sometimes it works, other times I have to modify or change the story. (I’ve even had to split one character into two so that a vital scene could remain, but I couldn’t reconcile the action from that vital scene to the role he played.)
So, what is your preferred way to get to know your characters? Do you like to know them upfront or wait until they’ve revealed themselves to you through the story? What other ways of getting to know your characters have you tried?