Know Thy Characters


“Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” by Renni Browne and Dave King
Cartoon by George Booth Copyright 1993

I discovered something this week. If you’re writing a story, you need to know your characters — well. I had created a brief workup on supporting characters that included appearance and a few interests. But I neglected to get at their core. I started writing without any real knowledge of who they were. Because I didn’t know them well enough, I mixed two of them up. I couldn’t remember who did or said what a chapter or so behind. I didn’t know how each would react.

Grant it, we get to know more about our characters as our stories unfold. But without an outline that includes more than the basics, we can get stuck. So I went back to a few books in my writing library and searched the internet for advice on Writer’s Digest.

I decided to sit with each character and ask questions to get to know them better. Because other than the main character, I didn’t know anyone else. And I need to know more than their likes and dislikes. I need to know what makes them angry or scared. I need to find out if anyone has any secrets. How else will I know if they are growing and changing as the story unfolds?

After viewing a couple of character charts online, I decided to create my own so that I could tailor it as needed. Let’s face it; a child is going to have a different character chart than an adult. With an adult you’re going to need to know a heck of a lot more.

I created several worksheets under one file in Microsoft Excel. It made it easier to have everything accessible from one source. It was interesting to see how things developed. All of them came forward. They just about jumped off the page to introduce themselves. Now I have a better understanding of who they are and how they interact with one another.

It turns out that one character is quite playful, one is geeky, and another can see the silver lining in every situation.  He’s quick witted and has the ability to come up with solutions and make everyone feel better. I also learned that the main character is the most sentimental of the bunch.

I usually jump in and start writing when a character or a story idea appears. Sometimes it just moves quickly. But from now on I know that I’ll have to spend time with my characters to get to know them inside and out.


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