Beginner writer tips: ways to really get to know your characters

You’ve got a character forming in your head, and you want to get her onto the page, but you’re not 100 per cent sure who she is yet. She’s halfway there, just not quite fully formed. How are you going to get to know her so that you can write her? Here are some ideas.


Get a starting image

I like to have a visual of my characters before I even start to ask them who they are. So far all of my main characters have been based on real people (in How Not To Be Popular Abby was based on a person I knew who had bright red hair and a smiley, kind face). Pick someone you know, or you’ve seen on the street, or perhaps start with the face of an actor. Searching through a stock photography site might also help you find a visual that is a good basis for your character.

Begin with a personality type

Is your character a choleric or sanguine type? Are they an ENFP or ISTJ? Which of the five natural elements do they identify with most? Check out the Enneagram tool as well.

As you can see, there are plenty of ways to define personality and plenty of tests you could do. I’m not so much interested in the science of these things (and frankly there may not be much) as the helpful descriptions they can give us of how people act and react in life.

Make sure your characters are different from each other

It’s easy to have everyone in your story sound the same, react the same and learn the same way. As well as doing character work for your protagonist, you’ll also need to do similar work for your minor characters. They need to have their own voices and their own stories, even if all of that story isn’t told.

Make sure your character is different from you

Beginner writers often end up creating what’s known as a ‘Mary Sue’ character, an idealised version of themselves. It’s not deliberate most of the time - it’s just easy. Check your character. Does she have flaws? Is she annoying at times? Are there bits of herself she’d rather not show, but which poke into the story and make it interesting? Check yourself: can you bear to write your character’s flaws, or are you somehow too attached to her to show her, warts and all? If you don’t want her to suffer or be exposed on the page, you may have written a Mary Sue.

How does your character make other people feel?

I pinched this question from author Claire Zorn’s writing workshop I attended recently. It’s a useful one because it goes to the heart of the interactions between characters — which is really what every story is all about. You can create a well-rounded, complex, interesting character, but if she doesn’t interact with other characters in a way that brings about tension, conflict and sparks of emotion, you’re not going to have a very effective story.

Related to this is: how does your character speak and act around other people, and what do they leave behind them when they go? Checking out the personality types may give some helpful insights into these interactions with others. Most of the personality tests I’ve mentioned above not only describe personality types, but offer insight into how they might operate when they are stressed or happy, and how they react to other personality types.

Talk to your characters

One of the most helpful things I have ever done to create, uncover, discover and form a character is to ask them questions. ‘Send’ them a list of questions, and ask them to write back the answers to you, in their own words. (Obviously, you do the answering… but you’re just the pen holder for their words. Let them find their own voices.)

Here’s a sample letter for your character with a list of questions you might like to try. I’ve created them for a younger character: feel free to adapt as appropriate for your character.

Dear ___________ ,

Kinda weird, I know, but I'm hoping you'll be interested in answering some or all of these questions. If you don't want to, it's no problem, but it would be cool if you could. I'll start with the easy ones... I think! (:

When you were eight, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Who was your favorite friend when you were ten? what stuff did you do together?

What was your first memory of your mum? Your dad?

Who do you hate most, and why?

When have you felt most alive?

What was the hardest thing in your life when you were 12? What's the hardest thing in your life right now?

Be honest: what do you really think about your mum?

What intimidates you?

When do you feel most confident?

What makes you laugh so much you can hardly stand up?

When was the last time you cried - and why?

Are you a 'lots of friends' person or 'just one friend' person? Why?

What are your favourite shoes?

Dogs or cats?

Meat or veg?

Ice cream or pie?

Mountains or beach?

What music do you listen to when you feel sad?

What music always makes you feel happy?

Describe yourself in one sentence. Or maybe three sentences. Whichever suits you better. (And why did you pick one, or three?)

Your thoughts about swimsuits?

And now I'm going to ask you one more question. I want you to answer with the first thought that comes into your mind. Don't think about it too much, okay? Just scroll down until you find it and then answer it.





What do you really want, deep inside?

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Cecily Paterson’s online Write Your Memoir course helps first time authors with the confidence and skills they need to tell their story. Her own memoir, Love Tears & Autism won third place in the 2012 Australian Christian Book of the Year Awards. She is the author of seven novels for young teen girls.

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Is my memoir worth writing? (Spoiler: yes it is)

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Some of the writers in my ‘Write Your Memoir’ course get a little worried when they’re starting out.

They want to write their story — but they also don’t believe that anyone would want to read it.

They think: ‘it’s not important enough’ or ‘it’s not significant’ or, and this is something I hear frequently, ‘my life has just been normal’.

Of course, we all know of memoirs that tell incredible stories of bravery, suffering or triumph – the ones that are a publisher’s dream. Those stories can be moving, inspiring and challenging.

But I believe that even the small, ordinary stories are worth telling.

There are two keys when you’re telling a ‘small’ story. First: know what a story is.

It’s more than just an anecdote, or a series of events. It’s more than an emotion or that time when we fell in love, or the trip we took.

Any and all stories contain certain, distinctive elements which work together, in the right order, and in the right proportion, to produce a sense of suspense, build up, completion and satisfaction in the hearer or the reader.

  • The beginning of the story must include an obstacle or problem, and a point of decision.

  • The main character of the story must choose to act, rather than be a passive recipient of circumstances.

  • There must be a significant low point, and a regathering of strength, and some kind of showdown.

  • Finally, we must see change in the main character. The events of the story have affected them internally as well as externally.

The second key is this: understand how your story has changed you.

The transformation of the main character is an important part of a memoir. It’s what makes a ‘small’ story – even a ‘trivial’ story – worth reading. When you are able to write with honesty and vulnerability: “this changed me”, you are on the road to writing a story which might help to change others.

Of course, to be able to write this requires self-knowledge and awareness, the willingness to be open, and the vulnerability of putting yourself out there. But if you are courageous enough to put these things on the page, your readers will truly appreciate it.

Perhaps you’ve been wondering if your story is important enough to write?

If so, I’d encourage you to think in two ways: firstly, what exactly is my story, and secondly, how have these events changed me?

Let me say it again: your story doesn’t have to be a long screed of drug use, abuse or suffering.

It could be as simple as the book my young daughter brought home from the library, about the true adventures of a troublesome puppy and what its owner learned. It seems like a trivial little tale on one hand. On the other hand, my daughter loved it. And she’ll take the lessons from it and absorb them into her own life. Which makes it a worthwhile and valuable story.

This post was first published at Christian Writers Downunder

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Cecily Paterson’s online Write Your Memoir course helps first time authors with the confidence and skills they need to tell their story. Her own memoir, Love Tears & Autism won third place in the 2012 Australian Christian Book of the Year Awards.

Writing Your Memoir? Five courses for first time writers


First time writer? Writing your memoir is possible.

Yes, it is possible — even if you don’t have a ‘proper’ education. Even if you’ve never written anything before. Even if you’re not sure about where all the punctuation goes in a sentence.

There are so many things we think could stop us writing our story. The truth is, we can do almost anything when we find the right tools, the right teacher, and the right encouragement and support.

Sometimes I get requests from people who want to tell their stories, but they don’t feel able to do it themselves. They think they should get someone else to do the writing part for them, so they ask me to do it.

“Can you ghostwrite my story for me?” they ask.

The question makes me sad. Because I firmly believe that you are the very best person to tell your own story.

When you do the writing, it’s your life. It’s your voice. It’s you, on the page.

Plus, you get the emotional and personal rewards that come from doing it. And don’t doubt — those rewards are considerable.

You need the right tools

You need to know how to start thinking about your story: what it is, and what it isn’t. You need to know the things that every memoir needs, and the things you can leave out.

You need some basics on planning your story out, what to put where, and what goes in each chapter.

You need to know what to put into your sentences so that people will want to read them. You’ll need to know how to write dialogue, and what kind of dialogue to write.

You need the right teacher

We humans are a funny old bunch. We do better when there’s someone on our team, cheering us on. We need to know that we can ask them questions and not feel stupid. We want to know that someone has our back, for when we feel discouraged.

To write your memoir, you’ll need someone who’s done it before you and who knows the process.

You’ll need someone who can put it into simple language and make it obvious to even the least ‘writerish’ kind of person.

A Write Your Memoir course makes it possible

You could go to the library and check out a book on how to write Your memoir, but if you’re really going to commit to doing the work and telling your story, my best suggestion is to do a course.

Having course materials to work through gives you all of the tools you need - step by step planning tools, writing skills, and time management tips.

Having a teacher there in front of you in a classroom, or, if it’s an online course, at the end of an email or on Facebook lets you ask all the questions you need. You’ll know you’re on the right track, and you can get your worries sorted out very quickly.

What course is best?

The great wide world of the internet will take you to a variety of Write Your Memoir courses. To make your decision, you’ll need to look at:

Price — what’s affordable for you, given your situation and how much you want to invest in your writing? Is it good value for what you get?

Location is the course near you, if it’s an on-location course. Do the dates suit? Otherwise you may need to consider an online course, where you can work at your own pace, contacting your teacher via email and social media.

Personality — Do you like the instructor? They might have a voice that grates, or they might not smile enough… or too much. It’s important to feel an affinity with the teacher, and to ‘get’ them, and feel that they ‘get’ you. Do you ‘vibe’ with the teacher?

Complexity — Are you looking for a course that covers a great deal of material in depth, or are you more interested in learning exactly what you need to know without extra fluff?

Results — Are there happy customers who are willing to talk about their experiences in the course? Does it rate well? Have people finished their memoirs after going through the course?

Support — What extra support does the course offer? Could you meet up with course participants, or meet on a facebook page for example?

Which course?

When you’re making your decision, here are some courses to consider:

Writers Digest University: Memoir 101 — A good basics course from a reputable site.

Write Your Memoir in Six Months — Promises to deliver within a time frame, which may be useful if you’re keen to get the project over and done with.

Write Your Memoir in Paris — super fun if you can afford it.

Memoir with Marion Roach Smith — Great teaching here, but it becomes more costly as you move through.

Write Your Memoir: Pay What You Can — designed for people who’ve never written before: it gives you everything you need to know and nothing you dont… and it’s immensely affordable at ‘Pay What You Can Afford’.


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Writing a memoir, but you're not sure how to begin, or what to include? Grab our Red Lounge for Writers FREE Memoir mini-course for some answers.