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.

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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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The emotional benefits of writing your memoir

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Memoir writers have a few different motivations.

“I want to share my story with other people in the same situation.”

“I want to give hope to women.”

“I want to make people laugh. (Or cry… or both.)”

Something that we memoir writers sometimes think, but don’t often say, is that we may want to write our stories to make ourselves feel better.

Telling your story is a cathartic experience. It changes things in your heart. It focuses your mind. It resolves stuff.

Sometimes, it helps you clarify your present, understand your relationships, get a hold of your motivations.

Overall, it acts as a stage curtain, sweeping across one ‘act’ of your life. “This is finished now,” it says, in a dramatic way. “You can move on.”

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The physical act of writing your memoir has an effect on you that you can’t understand, and you can’t quantify until you’ve done it. Somehow, in the thinking, and the writing, and the reliving of the old experiences, you’re able to make peace with yourself.

And then, the changes happen. I’ve seen people write their stories and grow in confidence and purpose. They’re able to move forward and break new ground.

I experienced this myself several years ago. After the diagnosis of my son with a chronic condition that brought trauma to our family life for over five years, I felt like I was swirling. Things had improved, but I was still stuck in what I’d lived through.

I decided that writing my story was something I needed to do – for myself, and my own peace of mind. It did help, in remarkable ways. Even as a writer, I was surprised by the effect it had on me. Where there was mostly grief and crisis, now there was mostly peace and acceptance.

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Not everyone has a story of trauma and grief to tell. But if you’re read this, it’s likely you’ve got some kind of story itching in your heart, waiting to get out.

Maybe you’re scared of revisiting old feelings. Maybe you feel guilty for putting so much time into something that doesn’t seem that important to anyone but yourself.

But be encouraged: the simple act of writing your story is going to be powerful and transformative in your life. The more you allow yourself to go along with the process, the more you can gain from the huge emotional benefits of memoir writing.

 

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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. 

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My family and friends won't read my book

My family won't read my book

You've spent months, even years, working on your book. You've invested your time, your money and your emotions into your manuscript. It's your baby: at least, you love it nearly as much as your own children.

You send it away to a publisher, or even hit 'publish' yourself, and sit back with a sigh of relief, and a tingling sense of anticipation: what are your family and friends going to think when they read it?

Um, sorry to burst your bubble. Those family and those friends? They almost certainly aren't going to read it.

They'll congratulate you, sure. They'll say, "Oh well done - great work on the book," when they see you at family functions, and then, "So, when's lunch?"

Or they might do this: "So, how's your book going?" Listen for approximately 2.5 seconds and then cut in: "I've been writing something too... let me tell you about it." Or, "I've got plans to write a book one day. I've got the story in my mind. It's going to be really, really good."

Generally, what they won't do is read your book. I've heard it time and time again, and I've experienced it myself. So if you're looking to your family and your friends to be your biggest writing fans, you're going to be sorely disappointed. 

Why won't they read it?

Why is it so very difficult for our friends and family to be keen about our work? There are a few reasons. A simple one may be that they just don't like books or reading, or they don't enjoy the genre you're writing. They might only read a thriller or a sci-fi murder mystery, and never YA romance or memoir, or whatever the style of book is that you've poured your heart into.

A more complicated reason may be that they are nervous. There's a risk involved whenever someone we know does something out of the box. What if we don't like it? What are we going to say then? There's nothing more embarrassing than picking up your friend's book, finding out that they can't write for beans, and then having to pretend to be nice about it.

Even more complicated is getting past the tricky dynamics that make up every relationship and family system. Subconsciously we all know our place in our social setting, and we know the place of the other people in it too. When people do something unexpected, like suddenly excel, or achieve a new level, or come to the forefront of people's attention, it can upset our social balance. We don't know how to manage the new dynamics, and so we find it easier to completely ignore the achievement - or, sometimes, even talk it down.

If you've written a memoir, family and friends might perhaps be more likely to read it, but only because they're curious about what you've said about them. The rest will (probably) be about judging the way you perceive the world.

What are you supposed to do?

If your friends and family don't read your book - and they almost certainly won't - you can waste a lot of energy getting worried about it, becoming bitter and resentful, and creating barriers that don't need to be there.

Simply accepting that the vast majority of your family and acquaintances will never, ever read your book is the smartest and most peaceful way to live your writerly life. You get to focus on your writing rather than picking fights, and when someone does read your work, and tells you they like it, it's like having chocolate cake for breakfast... absolutely fantastic.

Here's the take home message: don't look to the people you know to affirm your writing or your abilities as a writer. They won't. Sometimes, they can't. Instead, accept yourself as a writer, and enjoy it when you find an audience who appreciates your work. (Also, when your writing takes off and people start to read it, your family and friends will quickly jump on that bandwagon, and you'll be able to smugly say in your mind, 'See? You should have read it first.')

 

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