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Monday, May 26

5 Ways to Get to Know Your Character

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

There's a blog hop going around on meeting your main characters, and I was tagged by Elizabeth O. Dulemba. Instead of talking about characters in my current WIP, I thought it would be fun to turn the hop into a writing exercise anyone could do.

These are quick questions to pinpoint important elements of a character, whether they're the protagonist or a smaller character you want to add a little depth to. They can be used to help create a character from scratch, or to refine one during revisions once you know how that character reacts to the situations you throw them into.

1. What is name of your character--and how does she feel about that name?

Names can tell a lot about a character, from what era they live in to their nationality. But how someone feels about her name can say a lot about her personality. Does she like her name or go by a nickname? Is it a family name she's proud of? Does she feel it suits her or is it the opposite of her personality? Does she feel it's something she has to live up to or live down?

(Here's more on naming characters)

2. When and where is the story set--and how does the character feel about living there?

Entire novels have been written about characters unhappy with where they live, so how someone feels about the setting can be a very big deal for the story. Does she want to leave? Stay? Does she like certain parts and fear others? What memories or events in the past might have caused these emotions? Is she typical of the people of this setting or an outcast?

(Here's more on how the setting can affect your characters)

3. What should readers know about her?

Every character has something about them that earns them their place in the novel. It might be a special ability, a skill, a bit of knowledge, or even a secret. This could be the defining characteristic of that character.

(Here's more on character creation)

4. What is the main conflict—what messes up her life?

Without conflict there's nothing for the character to do and no reason for her to act. If she's there, she's dealing with something. This conflict will be connected to the core conflict, and the issue the book (and the character) is trying to resolve the entire novel.

(Here's more on creating conflict)

5. What is her personal goal?

No matter how interesting a character might be, if she has nothing she wants the story will wither and die. It's the quest for that goal that gets the story going and keeps it moving. Even small characters can have goals, and those goals can be used to cause trouble for the protagonist or flesh out a subplot.

(Here's more on goals and motivations)

One of the things I like about these questions is that they focus on the core elements needed for a successful story. If you find you can't answer some of these, that likely means there are still pieces missing from the overall story. If you're an planner, those are questions you might want to answer before you start writing. For pantsers, those might be areas you explore as you write to discover those answers.

For those with finished novels--these are all common elements of a query letter, and can help you develop your pitch when you're ready to start submitting.

Tag--You're It! Share a character from your story, published or a WIP. What is name of your character? When and where is the story set? What should readers know about her? What is the main conflict—what messes up her life? What is her personal goal? 

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. These are great questions! Okay, I'll play. In my current WIP the main character is named Skeet. The story is set in canyon country crawling with hungry monsters. The readers should know that Skeet is not human. The main conflict is that he lost his tribe and is trying to find a place for himself. Loosing his people and being raised by humans who don't really understand what he is -and who have their own agenda for him- has messed up his life in a big way. He thinks his personal goal is to be accepted by his humans, but really what he wants is a family.

    1. Love it. Such a human problem, and relatable even if Skeet isn't human.

  2. once again, you've nailed it, Janice. If only it were as simple as answering these questions…but good place to start. ANd good point about the query following suit. Chicory--good for you for answering them!

    1. If only :) But at least it gives us a place to start. That's why I love writing a query letter before I start the novel. It forces me to answer these basic questions so I can find my footing with the story.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Very cool. I like how the girl who prides herself for her family's name (and history) has to leave the land that history is tied to. And readers will love it when she's finally asked to give something she can't give.

  4. Reading this, I just came up with a new goal for one of my characters. I have four young women who are part of an elite, almost priest-like, order in their world, the Binti. (All Binti are women, and this is a matriarchal society.) The Binti are not allowed to marry and/or have children, and are discouraged from having any long-term relationship with people other than their own families and their Binti sisters.

    One of the four girls is the main character, Amanya. She falls in love with a man, and wants to change the Binti law so that she, and many other Binti she has met, and all future Binti who want, can get married, after their main task is fulfilled (each Binti has one main task for her life).

    Of her three best friends, Binti sisters, two support her but one doesn't. Because that one is asexual and has no interest in marriage, but more importantly because her very best friend probably would get married (another of the four) and she doesn't want that to happen. She is internally conflicted with feeling selfish, but when it comes down to it, she falls on the opposite side of her Binti sisters because of her desire not to lose her best friend to a husband or wife.

    Until I read this article, she unselfishly supported the change in law. But the part that said have one of the secondary characters have a goal that is in opposition to the MC's goal, just gave me this inspiration. Thanks!

    1. Cool! The exercise is working already :) Sometimes all it takes is someone asking the right question at the right time to set the creative sparks flying. Love the disagreement.

  5. @KnittinJen

    Your story sounds interesting! Please keep up the hard work because I can't wait to read it ;)