Art of Writing: Character Help- Five Ways to Get to Know Someone Who Doesn’t Exist

by Kathleen O’Malley

First of all, my title was technically untrue. Your character does exist, although only in your mind for now. If you write your story well, he or she will exist to your readers, too. But how do you get to know someone whose personality you’ve created?

Here are some strategies I’ve discovered that help me flesh out my characters as I try to write about their thoughts, words, and choices.

Profile your character.

Make a list of questions to apply to your character. This will be your character’s mug-shot—that is, a list of straightforward details about her life and personality. Once you get past her appearance and quirks, you can venture deeper with questions such as: “Where does she see herself in 10 years?” or “What does she hate the most about herself?”

Get a picture of your character.

Your character will become more real once you are able to look him in the eyes. If your artistic skills are poor or nonexistent, you can turn to magazines, a stock photo website, or even your parents’ school yearbooks to find a face that matches your character’s mental image.

Act out your character’s scenes.

Speak your character’s dialogue while in front of a mirror. The mirror will bounce your expressions and emotions back at you and help fuel the scene. Don’t hesitate to find a prop or two. Get alone and lock the door so that you can be just you and your writing. You’ll know that it’s starting to work if you find yourself going off-script and throwing in lines that make your dialogue fresh and maybe even unexpected.

Talk to your character one-on-one.

Open up a Word document, and invite your character to leave her world and talk to you as her Author. Let her ask questions, and you do the same. Write down whatever she says, even if it doesn’t sound like her. If she starts to sound fake, repeat your question. Insist on a different answer until she cracks and says something that rings true. Be prepared for surprises!

Find your character’s theme song(s).

Music can help you get into the setting and mood of your character. Search for music that reminds you of a certain scene or emotion that your character experiences. Listen to that music when you’re writing a pivotal scene. Soundtracks are my genre of choice, and the chief scores on my playlist are those from the movies How To Train Your Dragon, The Chronicles of Narnia movies, and The Pirates of the Caribbean.

Most of all, remember this writing principle: the best method is the one that works for you and your style. Don’t give up! Like people in real life, your characters might just be waiting for a little perseverance on your part before they reveal their secrets.

Kathleen O’Malley is a Professional Writing major. 

One comment

  1. Katie, I really enjoyed your article. One of my favorite authors, Suzanne Brockman, wrote a series books about the guys on a navy seal team..the next book was interviews with all the characters regarding how they wanted future stories to go..very you.. Love, Grandma O


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