Getting to Know Your Characters

There’s an element of writing that often gets short shrift, especially from writers who are squeezing in their daily word count before work or after the kids go to bed: prewriting.

These are the outlines, character sketches, and freewriting exercises that you work through before you start working on the draft. And, while every writer’s process is unique, I highly recommend giving prewriting a shot, tailoring your exercises to the places you’re having trouble. Whether you’re struggling with plot, world building, or character development, prewriting can help you overcome your writer's block and push your novel forward.

I’ll make it a point to post a variety of prewriting exercises over the coming months but, first, let’s focus on my favorite:

Getting to Know Your Characters

When I was in elementary school I went through a phase where I wrote story after story after story. I “published” them myself — designing covers on Microsoft Publisher, printing the stories, and popping them into an ultra-thin three-ring binder — and forced them on all my friends, family members, and unsuspecting teachers.

Back then, I had a tried and true character development strategy. It was foolproof. It was M.A.S.H.

I would set up the game for myself with markers and notebook paper, choosing categories like name, job, kind of car, age, and city. I’d pick a number at random and go down the list, crossing out options until I was left with just one in each category. And that was my main character.

It was a silly exercise, but it was all I needed to get a story going, and it’s not too far off from how I like to help authors develop characters today.

I don’t leave it up to chance so much, anymore, and I try to dive a little deeper than mansion, apartment, shack, or house. But, when you get right down to it, developing characters is about asking questions. And those questions are meant to accomplish two things:

1.      Give Your Characters a Past

The best way to equip yourself to bring your characters to life is to learn their life stories. What was their childhood like? What are some of the most important moments from their past? What was their most transformative relationship? Unpack their histories, their families, their favorite and least favorite memories. Learn about their core values, their deep-seated philosophies, and their ethical lines in the sand. Their insecurities, their frustrations, and what happens when their worldview is shaken.

You won’t include every detail in your draft (please don’t include every detail in your draft), but if you know everything there is to know about your characters, you’ll be able to illustrate these complex, three-dimensional people through their actions in your novel.

If you’re not sure where to start, the internet is home to limitless lists of character development questions, and you can find a few of them here.

2.      Give Your Characters an Objective

What does each character want more than anything, and what will they do to get it? It may seem like an obvious question, but if you dive deep into your characters’ objectives before you start writing, you’ll find it much easier to figure out what they should do next in any given moment.

I like to explore objective through a system from the theater world, developed by Konstantin Stanislavski, which focuses on three elements

  1. Superobjective: a character’s overarching desire, which persists throughout the entire narrative

  2. Objective: a character’s primary desire in any given scene (most often, though not always, in service of the superobjective

  3. Tactics: the actions a character takes to achieve his or her objective

Let’s break it down using a well-known story:

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry’s superobjective is to retrieve whatever is hidden in the third floor corridor. One of his objectives is to find out what is hidden, and his tactics include sneaking into the restricted section of the library, tricking Hagrid into sharing information, and quizzing Dumbledore. Another objective is to get past Fluffy, the three-headed dog, which he does by playing music (a tactic) — in favor of the superobjective.

Make sense? Once you understand what your characters want, you can decide what they’ll do next by asking yourself whether the proposed actions are in favor of their objectives and superobjectives.

The better you know your characters, the more specific you can make them, and the clearer they’ll be to your readers. Prewriting exercises like these can help make your drafting process just a little easier.

What are your favorite character development exercises?