Let’s face it; you can’t write about someone you don’t know well.
Or maybe a better way to say it is this:
You can’t write well and with authority about someone you don’t know well.
So how do you get to know your characters?
Four Popular Methods
Formal Interview. Interview characters as though they were job applicants. Basic question categories are: Their growing up years; education; profession; family life. I wrote about this process in a series that begins with Well-Rounded Characters-3 Tips for Getting Acquainted.
Informal Interview. If the formal interview is like interviewing a job applicant, the informal interview is more like taking a new acquaintance to lunch.
It’s more of a conversation than an interview. You ask questions, but you also free write and let the character tell you whatever he or she wants to tell you.
Just Start Writing. Sometimes the best way to get to know your characters is to put them in a situation and let them get out of it. As with most free writing exercises, don’t edit yourself, even to correct spelling. Let whatever comes to mind end up on paper. (You can—and probably should—edit later.)
Hearing Voices. Once in a while, a character comes to me through dialogue. After weeks spent planning a story, your lead shows up one day and begins telling his or her story, revealing back story, fears and ambitions one scene at a time.
What Method Do I Use?
The short answer is all of them (and then some). I have a long list of questions that can be used in a formal interview. When I use this, it’s like filling out a dossier on a character. It works for some but not for others. A chatty character, for example, will gladly part with information.
It’s less likely to do well with a more reserved character.
It’s for that reason that I no longer rely on the formal interview as much as I used to.
I do 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.
But the method I’m using most right now is a combination of character journaling through free writing and putting characters into situations and learning about how they think and respond by seeing how they get out of those situations.
You may already have guessed that there’s no right way to learn more about your characters. All of the methods described here work, but you may have a totally different way of getting to know your characters. Great!
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.