You can’t write well and with authority about someone you don’t know well. That applies to people you know personally and people you know only by acquaintance.
It also applies to the characters in your novels. You must know enough about them to make them believable to readers.
So how do you get to know your characters?
Here are four of my favorite methods.
Interview characters as though they were job applicants. Basic question categories are: Their growing up years; education; profession; family life.
I use a template based on Traci Peterson’s 100 Important Questions To Ask About Your Character but you can make up your own questions or search online.
I like to “meet with a character”‘ in a place where he or she is comfortable. I ask questions, but also let them do more leading than comes with a formal interview. Locations have included one character’s back deck, another’s favorite restaurant, and another’s hometown.
The primary way this differs from the formal interview is that if your character is a conversationalist, they can take over the conversation. Ask the right question and a wealth of information spills forth.
Or, as has sometimes happened to me, the character initiates the conversation and I follow their lead.
Remember, the way your character interacts with you is just as important to observe as what they say or do. A character who is reticent with you will be reticent with other characters. A character who is a chatterbox with you will also talk the ears off other characters.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Put your character in a difficult situation and let them get out of it. Don’t edit, even to correct spelling. Let whatever comes to mind end up on paper.
The situation can be related to the story the character wants to tell, but it doesn’t need to be. One of my favorite characters revealed an incident from the year he was eight. The incident probably won’t show up in the story, but it was pivotal to him.
Some characters show up unexpectedly and begin telling you his or her story. Back story, fears, ambitions, dreams. When this happens, the best thing to do is write as fast as you can. Try not to interfere. Pretend you’re sitting over coffee with this person, listening to them talk.
Don’t worry about writing things that won’t make it into your story. There will be a lot of that sort of stuff, guaranteed.
But it’s not about writing just what can be used in the story. It’s about getting to know your character. Every tidbit you learn will affect your story in some way.
If you haven’t found the method that works best for you, give each of these a try. Mix them up and see what happens.