For a moment, think about your main character (MC) and how well you truly know him or her. Aside from the basic physical attributes and possibly some back story, can you hold your right hand up and swear that you know your MC inside and out?
Try this simple exercise. With your MC in mind and without hesitating, can you answer the following questions?
- your MC is in a restaurant, does he/she simply order an appetizer, main and dessert or is your MC more high maintenance, requesting that the fish be baked instead of fried, the onions held and the dressing on the side?
- Does your MC arrive fifteen minutes early for everything (i.e. in order to get a good seat) or is your MC late for everything (because he/she always thinks they have plenty of time)
- is your MC afraid of commitment because he/she has abandonment issues which spring from being abandoned at the age of five by a parent?
A couple of years ago, I read Elizabeth George’s book on writing called Write Away– which I highly recommend – in it, she suggests writing a detailed character analysis before you even write the first chapter. Before she starts any of her literary crime novels, George tacks up a character prompt next to her computer screen. The prompt would have basic cues like hair color, education, etc and more in-depth cues like gait, what the character does alone, what’s the first thing that others notice about the character, etc. The key, according to George, is not to just fill in the blanks but to prompt you — thus the name, character prompt – to write using stream of consciousness about your character to get the creative juices flowing. This is one exercise that I love doing, I may get pages and pages of info and I may not use all of it, but it gives me great insight into my character and what motivates them.
Another site to check out, The Writers’ Workshop Advice Library has a great exercise titled, The Ultimate Character Builder which can guide you in developing your character.
I wouldn’t recommend doing this for every character in your book or you’ll never get to that first chapter, but it certainly goes a long way in shaping your primary characters.
Ian Jones says
Thanks for this- there’s some really useful advice here! I’ve never considered characters in terms of ‘knowing them’ before, but I think it’s a helpful way to connect with them. Since reading your post I feel that my characters have been much more believable and seem more like people than constructs- something that I have been striving for for some time now! I have started using this technique for all of my characters, not just the protagonist, and have found it to be equally effective. I’ll definitely keep pursuing this as I’ve experienced some great results!
Michele Brouder says
Glad to be of help. Happy writing!