Thursday, October 25

Who is That Guy? Discovering Your Characters

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

For a lot of writers, character is what comes first, both in the idea stage, and the story stage. A story idea is born from the glimmer of a character.

A girl who can fly.
A boy who lost his parents in a war.
A man who is obsessed with the color blue.

    Something about that vague person sparks interest and we spin an entire novel (or series) from that. But after that initial spark, how do you fan it into a flame? Or harder still, how do you know who else to add to the fire?

    Some secondary characters will appear soon after the protagonist comes to mind, like the antagonist. Sidekicks or best friends are usually easy to add. But the rest? It's not always clear who will be needed or why.

    There are some archetypes though. Character types that frequently populate stories because they're useful, like the sidekick/best friend type. The protagonist will need someone to talk to to help move the story along. A love interest is not uncommon. An enemy who isn't the antagonist just to keep the pressure on. Family members, both good and bad. A mentor type.

    When deciding who is going to be part of your story, try thinking about the types of roles you'll need.

    1. Who are the people that are going to provide information to the protagonist?
    These could be wise mentors, a chatty gal at the records office, even a double agent. Look at the broad scope of your story and its world and see where information might come to your protagonist. Maybe one of those areas can spawn a great character.

    2. Who are the people who are going to get in the protagonist's way? 
    The antagonist is the obvious one, but who else? Other people are going to deny your protagonist things over the course of the story, and it won't always be due to a menacing plot. A rival mom at school could cause trouble, or someone up for the same promotion. That on-the-edge-of-evil magic student might be pushed over the edge and turn on your protagonist. What types of people are in positions to hinder your protagonist? 

    (More on non-antagonist bad guys here)

    3. What types of people are commonly found in the world/situation/city/job/environment your story is set in?
    If your story revolves around a police detective in a city, you'll know right away the types of folks she'll likely come into contact with. Same if he's a rancher in Montana. People with roles in the world can bring valuable information or insight to your protagonist, and can make great secondary characters. Think about the people your protagonist will come into contact with and if any of them are worth keeping around.

    (More on why the protagonist needs friends here) 

    4. Who has the power?
    Some folks are going to be in charge. Maybe it's your protagonist, maybe it's not. But those people will be able to affect your protagonist's goals and life in all kinds of ways, even if they're not actively trying. There's a good chance your antagonist is going to come from this pool of folks.

    5. Who are the victims?
    Somebody is getting a raw deal somewhere. There's a good chance your protagonist falls into this category, or maybe someone they know or care about. Even if they're not part of this group, they might have strong feelings about them and their situation. A lot of plot can come from people being victimized. 

    (Jody Hedlund on how not to create plastic characters here)

    6. Who are the wild cards?
    You always have that group that is capable of anything--good and bad. You might even have some inkling of who these folks are, as they often have some ability the protagonist needs in the story. A power, a secret, access to something or someone. Plot will often turn on these people.

    If you don't know who any of these people are at the start, don't fret. I do minimal character work before I start a story, because seeing how my characters develop is part of the fun for me. I learn about them as I write. But this works for me because I do heavy world building and plotting first, so I force myself to make them make the choices that define them. Maybe you prefer to develop the people first and then see how the world develops around them. Both are viable ways to plan a novel.

    Character Interviews
    Many writers swear by interviewing their characters. I'll admit this isn't a technique I use (I'm a plot first kinda gal), but it's a great way to get to know your characters without having a plot color your answers. Juliette Wade did a wonderful post about this with some awesome questions to ask.

    When you ask questions of your characters, try to look beyond the physical traits. While it's good to know their eye and hair color, where they were born, or what they do for a living, just knowing the "what" doesn't tell you how they'll react to a situation. Unless those traits have reasons behind them.

    Like the brown-hair girl who dyes her hair red because she loves to be the center of attention.

    Or the red head who dyes her hair brown because she hates being the center of attention.

    Questions that shape personality will also help you shape plot. Because those two girls will do different things in the same situation. So look for interview questions that answer why. Like...
    • What events affected the way the protagonist feels about something important to the story?
    • What were their past relationships like? (with a variety of people)
    • What's the worst thing to ever happen to them and how did that change them?
    • What's the best thing to happen and how did that change them?
    • What is their biggest fear? Why?
    • What's the worst thing they ever did? How did that affect them?
    • What do they hope no one finds out about them? 

    How much time do you spend creating your characters?


    1. These were great tips! It's so important to at least get to know your main character first! I've never done the interview thing either but one thing that has helped me was do a write up of my character speaking in first person as if she was speaking to me (though I wish I had some of those questions you listed here!) I learned a lot about my MC and my story took off from there.

    2. At heart, I'm a crazy planning freak, so all of this research stuff appeals to me; except, I can never get myself to actually use my research. For some reason when I sit down to write, no matter how good my intentions, an entirely different cast of characters appears from the ones I planned out.

    3. Okay, I can't resist recommending my character interview post, which was inspired in part by some questions put up by Nicola Morgan at "Help! I need a publisher!" It's got all her questions (with my comments) and then some character questions I put up in a workshop a couple of years ago.

    4. I love character interviews. I am doing some right now as part of a writing exerices I am doing daily - so enlightening!

    5. I am about to start my character interviews for my next project and you had some unique questions/thoughts--thanks! I have actually visited your blog often but am embarrassed to admit that I don't think I have commented often (I am a homeschool mama who has limited time to read blogs). You always have great advice and insight, so let me now thank you also for all your previous posts that I neglected to respond on. You Rock :-)

    6. McGriff: (I think I called you McGruff last post! Sorry!) First person is great for that. It really forces you to become that person.

      Tessa: That's okay, because you probably did a lot of the background work in your head (or on paper) and then ran with it. If you hadn't done all that work, it's possible those characters wouldn't have popped into your head. I like synopses for that very reason. I get to get out the first thought ideas and that frees me to think up better ones.

      Juliette: I was so totally going to ask you about guest posting on this! I'll add your link to the post since it's a great one.

      Christine: That's awesome :) You'll have to let us know how they work out.

      Rachel: Thanks! No worries if you don't comment. I love to hear from folks, but it's okay to just lurk, too.

    7. Another long-time lurker, infrequent commenter here. Just a quick note to say your mention of hair-colour being useful if it reveals traits reminded me of a new character who has hair issues (which come into play in the as yet imagined story) due to an event in her past and made me go deeper with it. Then since I was in the area I ended up answering your other questions too and now she's rounding out nicely. So thank you!
      - Sophia.

    8. Wow, what a useful post! Thank you, Janice! Just reading through this helped me flesh some things out.

    9. Hi,
      I often get the whole story (esp. short stories) all at once with characters who just come with it like a combo meal at a fast food restaurant.

      However, lately, and especially with some novels I'm trying to get going, I've got plot ideas but no people have come along with them and I'm having the worst time trying to create characters - so I'm hoping some of what you mention here will help.

      I've tried interviewing and quickly feel foolish. I've never got to where I feel like I'm interviewing someone - other than myself - and the answers still feel dead and lifeless when I'm finished.

      I'm saving this post and hoping some of these questions you've come up with will help spark my muse. :-)

    10. If the character interview is anything like a character map sheet I used recently, I'd have to agree that it helped. Though my characters start out strong, they've been known to morph on me and while this can often lead to some exciting twists in a story, it can also lead to a wild lob shot which then leads the whole story astray. Character mapping helps me know my characters through and through so as I write the story I navigate a tighter course through it.

    11. Sophia: Cool! Glad it helped out ;)

      Katrina: That's awesome, thanks

      Sandra: Interviews have the same effect for me. Hopefully these will work better for you :) I like to think about them as they relate to my plot or the world, and see if there's anything that can be used to further the story.

      Literary Magic: I've never done anything with a character map, but I have heard folks speak highly of them. I'll have to find someone to talk about that, as well :)

    12. I totally interviewed my characters because there is a whole world in my head - it's as if they are so real I could be sitting at the dinner table with them. (Not in an "I'm crazy" kind of way.) They just exist from my mind to the computer. So, yes, interviewing them helped me get their personalities out. Now it's like, "Oh that's soooo ~him~." My husband is sorta annoyed, though. ha.

    13. Janice, thanks for the "wild card" term. I have two characters that I've yet to give a name to other than "sort-of-antagonists"!

      When I started out I tried a character interview. They are definitely worth a go, because when you get to the questions beyond eye and hair colour, you realise how much you don't know about the cast of your story! :)

      Literary Magic, I recently posted on character maps ( and I am eager to see what yours looks like! I checked out your site, but I couldn't find it! :(

    14. This is so helpful, and just in time as I figure out my nano--printing! Thanks Janice--you are so knowledgeable!


    15. Lavender, that's great that interviews work so well for you. I wish I could do them better. I start, then I get tangled up in plot ideas.

      Virtuefiction, happy to help. I love bad guy characters that are just there the be a pain. Such fun.

      Angela, oh good! And thanks so much :) That's huge coming from you.

    16. What a terrific post. I'm working on character development right now and this is very helpful. Thanks!

    17. The NaNoWriMo novel I'm plotting right now will be significantly affected plotwise by how the main character develops over the course of the novel. The ending might completely change, for example, but I don't know how or if that will happen because I don't "know" the character well enough yet. I've done character sketches, but I can't really sketch development. I'll just have to see as I go.

    18. Beth, most welcome, glad to hear it helps!

      Laura, I'm that way with characters, too. I know the bare bones, but they develop as I write and see how they act in the situations I put them in. Good thing for revisions :) That's when I tweak the plot once I know the character arcs.

    19. Janice, this was SOOO helpful for me! Thanks for all you do.

    20. Julie, most welcome :) Glad it found you when you needed it.