Monday, August 5

A Quick Tip for Getting to Know Your Characters--And Your Plot

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I've been eyeballs-deep in novel planning lately, and I've been focusing on all the things a writer does before they sit down to actually write. One of the workshops I sat in on at RWA a few weeks ago was on character building, led by romance author Susan Elizabeth Philips. I've attended her workshops before and she's always been entertaining and informative.

She gave a tip (and did an exercise) that I've seen before:
List the contents of your character's purse.
This has never worked for me since my characters don't usually have purses, and she added the phrase "or their backpack or pockets" to it. That broadened it some, and I realized that ultimately, what she was saying was:
What does your character feel is important enough to carry around with them?
It's a slightly different way of looking at this character-building tip, but I've learned that a subtle shift in how you consider something is often all it takes to turn a "not for me" tip into something that clicks and becomes incredibly helpful.

Then she took it a step further, and this is the part I really found helpful.
What items give a sense of the plot?
Any item could be in a purse, pocket, or bag. People carry useless stuff all the time, and they carry stuff that could be found in anyone's bag. But if you think about what's unique to that character, and how that item gives a sense of the plot, conflict, or even theme, then you've discovered something about your character you probably didn't know before.

(More on discovering who your characters are here)

How does this work?

List three to five things your character would carry or keep with them. (I'll wait)

Okay, now look at those things. How many of them could be found in any random person's possession? Get rid of those.

Now add back only items that also say something about your character that relates to the plot, conflict, or theme of the novel.

(More ways to create characters here)

Let's check in with Bob and the zombies for some examples.

Bob would stuff someone in the middle of a zombie apocalypse would own. Ammo, a weapon, survival gear, etc. But he'd also have a photo of Jane, the woman he's secretly in love with. No, better yet, make it a candid photo of her, signifying that he took it without her knowledge and that his love is unrequited or unprofessed.

All the other survival gear is something every character in this zombie book would carry. It tells us a little about the type of book, sure, but it gives us nothing about who Bob is or what his story is. But that candid photo? That says more. That suggests a larger story at work that's personal to Bob, and makes him more interesting.

Why does he have a photo of a woman who's not his wife?

Not only does this add an element of intrigue to the character, it also suggests something about the plot but pointing out what matters to Bob. Jane is important enough to him to A) snap a candid photo of her, B) have it with him even when the world is ending, C) risk his wife seeing it.

From this one photo, you know Bob is unhappy in his marriage, he wants another woman, and that she probably doesn't know it (the wife or the love interest, really). You'd know that Bob would go to great lengths to protect Jane, and maybe not so great lengths to protect his wife.

These details will have far more significance to you as the author than the reader, because you'll understand why they matter. But knowing that will give those items and seemingly random details so much more weight in the story, because they will actually mean something. The reader will eventually see that as the story and characters develop.

Little details often make the difference between good and awesome. It's the extra thought that pulls the greatness from of a character and fleshes them out for a reader.

Even if you don't typically like the purse exercise, try it again with this new aspect in mind. Consider what items would say more about your character than the stereotypical elements of your genre and character archetype. What items say who they are when no one's watching?

(More on character archetypes here)

You might just discover something new.

What unexpected details have made you love a character?


  1. BBC's Sherlock did a great job with John Watson. In the opening episode, he's a PTSD vet living on his own, in a Spartan room with a gun in a drawer. Keep in mind the Brits are fairly anti-gun and Watson is a doctor.

  2. Great tip, Janice, especially with the example of the picture in the pocket. I've heard of doing this before, but never tried it.

  3. The purse idea wouldn't work for me. My characters start out as blank slates, and I flesh them out as I move through the story, adding whatever traits I need to strengthen the plot. You might be surprised how well this works, at least for me.

    I do like the idea of imagining what possessions he cares about most, though, especially when I'm far enough through the story to get a sense of where he's at. I think I'll try that trick in my next story. Thanks, Janice.

  4. Ooh, I love Sherlock! (Whistles innocently and pretends to have nothing to do with fangirl squee.)

    Your switch from `what the character has' to `what's important to the character' really makes this click. Now I want to try the exercise. I have a character who carries a lot of random stuff, but I never bothered to look past the obvious. (Rope for climbing, playing cards for springing locks, a Jacob's Ladder just because I needed him to pull something out of his pocket and there it was.)

    I love your Bob and the Zombies example. It really clarifies what you're saying.

  5. That's an excellent tip, and thank you so much for this post!

    I had certainly read about purse-inventory (or, as in my MC's case, backpack-inventory) as a form of fleshing out characterization, but for some reason I hadn't made the connection of using it as a plot-enhancing device. It makes so much sense.

  6. Rachel, great show. And a great example.

    Natalie, I never had until this workshop, and I figured out something really cool for a book I'm working out. I'm going to try it more often now.

    Chemist Ken, that's actually my process as well, but this exercise actually helped me discover something I love for a new book. I wouldn't have figured it out had I not done this exercise.

  7. Like everyone else who has commented I have come across the purse (in UK English the handbag) exercise before as part of character creation, but these crucial extras embed the character into the plot - simple and brilliant! Like your example too - it's a good model as is the opening scene from Sherlock. Generally speaking, no one in UK carries a gun unless you're a criminal or it's essential for work such as a farmer (pest control). I don't think even gun club members would keep their guns at John Watson having a gun is very significant. And on that subject Sherlock is just about the start a news season. Be still my beating heart...!

  8. Janice, thanks for helping us wrap our minds around this tool!

    Years ago, I read about this exercise (forget where) but it didn't click for me (could have something to do with the fact that I don't carry a purse :-/ ). I have actually done this without realizing it in my current wip. My character is a runaway so she travel lite but when she left home she did take several items which play a part in the story like the military coin given to her at her father's funeral from his unit. She also has empty chocolate covered coffee bean wrappers in her backpack that play into the plot. One other thing that occurred to me is that the fact that her backpack has the empty wrappers and her tote that holds her art supplies is neat, tidy, and meticulously arranged is also telling.

    I think I'll try this for my MMC to see if I get any insight. ;-)

  9. I've heard the purse idea, but I've never heard the "throw the rest out" part. That's brilliant!

  10. Janice, so much just snapped into place for me -- I can't wait to get cracking on my novel again now that I understand my protagonist a little bit more! Thanks!!

  11. Bridgetwhelan, I just loved that little extra thought. It really gave the exercise direction. I can't wait for the new Sherlock myself.

    Lynn, very cool. I'm intrigued by the wrappers now. Love the coin detail as well.

    Julie, thanks, that was my addition :) Kind if like cutting through the superfluous details to find the bits the matter.

    Sarah, oh cool! I love when that happens. Good luck with the tweaks!

  12. Another great post Janice. I saw a short doc once about the things people keep in their pockets. It was very moving. I love this approach about finding what matters to the plot. I can't wait to empty out my character's bookbag!

    Here's another idea that may be helpful to folks: Because my character is a teen, I've decided to search through her cell phone as well. I'm sure I can find a load of stuff in there. Happy writing!

  13. Marti, great idea! I love that. It opens a lot of doors for the different places characters can store things.