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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How to write inner dialogue

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I had a question from a writer, who asked: What is the best way to show internal thinking? Your personal thoughts may differ from the conversation. Do the same rules for spoken dialogue apply to internal dialogue?

As we know, the 'rules' for spoken dialogue are these:

  • The dialogue must be important. (In other words, it must contribute to the overall plot of the story or development of the character.)

  • The dialogue must be authentic.

  • What's around the dialogue is just as important as the dialogue itself.

  • Dialogue needs to be written correctly.

It's pretty easy, then, to say that internal dialogue is going to follow similar rules to spoken dialogue.

Internal dialogue must be important

If the character's internal thoughts are different from what they are verbalizing in the dialogue, you can definitely argue that they are 'important'. The tension between what's said and unsaid contributes a lot to the tension of the plot and the development of the character.

Here's a  lovely example of this. (All the examples I'm using in this article are from Annie, a young writer, who's working on her first full length novel. The excerpts are in first person Point Of View, so it's very applicable to memoir writers who also use the first person POV.)

‘I mean, what was it like in the city?’
    I shrug. ‘Not that much different to here.’ Except for, my thought-voice corrects, the marching in the streets and the headlines on every newspaper declaring something important and the way everyone didn’t know your business.
    ‘I’m moving away first chance I get. Brisbane, maybe even Melbourne. Wouldn’t that be something else?’ She takes a small bite of her patty cake, almost wistfully.
    We’re silent then, lost in our separate worlds. You don’t know anything important about her. And she knows just as much about you.

The internal voice can also be used to channel other people's voices, or talk to people who aren't actually in the room. Below we hear our character channelling her elder sister being bossy to her, and then apologising to her father. This is a lovely example of character development without the person even having to be in the room.

Instead of my mum’s voice, I hear Elsa’s inside my mind: You’ll be too tired later if you don’t go back to sleep, Alisha. After a while, she started giving the instructions. She didn’t realise I’d already been giving them to myself.
I pull The Encyclopedia of Australian Birdlife off the bedside table, nearly knocking my photo frame. Sorry, Dad, I apologise, setting it upright again.   

Internal dialogue must be authentic

When we think about internal dialogue being authentic, we need to be careful about how the thoughts are expressed. In these excerpts, our thirteen year old character has a very distinct internal voice. It often corrects her, or tells her to do act differently. It's almost a separate character in the story - the tough, misunderstood unhappy girl, who can't be shown to anyone else.  Below, her internal voice scolds her for nearly breaking out in tears, and sounds authentically harsh, as anyone who has ever scolded herself will know.

‘I know you won’t say it, so I will: I’m going to miss you, Alisha,’ she tells me.
    ‘Really?’ I’m sarcasm mingled with hope.
    Elsa nods. ‘And I’m sorry I never said good-bye.’
    For the first time, I truly want to believe her. She’s said what she couldn’t be bothered to yesterday – what she forgot. Why are there tears pricking the backs of your eyes? For heaven’s sake! ‘I … might miss you, too.’

When this character's internal voice is cynical, it can almost sound funny. Again, this is very authentic. We've all had that inner snarky voice say internally what we can't express in public.

‘Want to come over to my place and watch television?’ Mike asks as the bus pulls out of town. ‘It’s Thunderbirds today.’
    I don’t break my staring out the window to answer. ‘Can’t. I have chores and homework.’ 
    He clears his throat slightly. ‘Um, I heard what Kathryn said about you.’
    Of course he did. 
    ‘It’s stupid. Who the heck would believe it?’

What's around the internal dialogue is as important as the dialogue itself

When we write with a very deep Point of View, so that everything on the page is seen, heard and experienced from the character's viewpoint, we are essentially privy to all the main character's thoughts and inner dialogues anyway. Below we see our character's internal surprise twice - when Elsa is already in the kitchen, and when she hugs her - even though it's not written specifically as internal dialogue. Annie could have written these two emotional responses as her character's thoughts, but if there were too many specific internal thoughts in the paragraph, the strength of all of them would be diluted. Yes, you can include too much internal dialogue!

Instead, Annie has saved the internal dialogue for the last sentence, 'But not to Mum' which is short and sharp and makes a powerful contrast with her spoken words, 'I might write to you.'

Elsa surprises both Grandpa and I by already being in the kitchen, eating breakfast, completely dressed and almost ready to leave, when we come in from the milking shed. When it’s time to say goodbye, when her suitcases and record player are once again packed in her car, I surprise myself by hugging her before she hugs me. ‘I might write to you,’ I whisper. But not to Mum. 

Dialogue needs to be written correctly

First, distinguish between the exact words that are thought, versus the gist of the thought of the character. 

I thought that Elsa might know what I was talking about.
I thought, Elsa might know what I'm talking about.

See the 'that' in the first example? That means it's not internal dialogue anymore, so you don't have to worry about how to format it as such. The only thing that gets formatted as internal dialogue are the exact words that are thought by the character.

A complete phrase or sentence of words which are said internally is often written in italics with no speech marks.

But not to Mum.
Of course he did.

For heaven's sake.

If the words are written with speech tags, they may either be in italics, or using speech marks, but not both. 

It’s as good a time as any for breakfast, I decide, wrapping a blanket around my shoulders as I walk to the kitchen.
'Well, that's a surprise', I think, as I see Elsa in the kitchen


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