Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Get to Know Your Character

By Dallas Woodburn

Once upon a time, Peter Pan was just a faceless name. Before The Lord of the Rings, Frodo was merely an image inside Tolkien’s mind. When I was in elementary school, nobody had heard of Harry Potter.

Kind of hard to believe, isn’t it? As readers, we often get so attached to our favorite characters that it can be difficult to remember they aren’t real beings but rather figments of an author’s wonderful imagination brought to life on the page. Indeed, I believe one of the most important aspects – if not the most important aspect – of a good story is its characters. The characters are the ones who bring the reader inside the story – and keep her turning the pages to the final sentence. Characters are the ones who make the reader feel like he has a stake in what happens.

How can you create interesting, memorable characters who feel like real people? Get to know them yourself! YA author Joan Bauer once told me she writes 30-page biographies of all her main characters before she even starts writing the book. Now, I’m not saying you need to write a 30-page biography, but you can at least spend a few minutes interviewing your character and getting to know him or her better.

Below are some possible questions to answer in the “voice” of your character. These are just to give you ideas – feel free to jump off into answering your own questions! See where the “voice” of your character takes you!

My name is …
I am ___ years old. My birthday is ____.
I live in …
I like to …
My favorite color is …
My favorite food is …
My favorite type of music is …
My favorite movie is …
My favorite animal is …
My best friend is …
My secret hideout is …
I dream about …
I am obsessed with…
My greatest fear is …
My greatest wish is …
If I had a super power, it would be …
I love …
Something that makes me really angry is …
I worry about …
One day, I hope …

As you get to know your character better, you might find a story developing. Some ideas to get you started:

My happiest memory is …
My saddest memory is …
My most embarrassing moment is…
My favorite holiday has always been…
Last summer, I …
I was terrified when …
My life changed forever when …
The last time I cried was …
One time, I lied about …
I couldn’t believe my eyes when …
I never, ever thought I would …
I knew I was in trouble when …

Do you have any other questions you ask your characters? Share them with other writers! Email them to me at dallaswoodburn@aol.com and they might be posted on my blog, http://dallaswoodburn.blogspot.com.


Bio: Dallas Woodburn is the author of two award-winning collections of short stories and editor of Dancing With The Pen: a collection of today’s best youth writing. She has written more than 80 articles and essays for national publications including Family Circle, Writer’s Digest, The Los Angeles Times, and the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. She graduated from the University of Southern California with a B.A. in Creative Writing and is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Fiction Writing at Purdue University, where she also teaches undergraduate writing courses.

Website: http://www.writeonbooks.org
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/writerdallas
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/dallaswoodburn

8 comments:

  1. Dallas, interesting idea, but somehow I have a hard time working with the characters this way. I have a much easier time putting them in a scene (not necessarily from the book) and writing it from their POV.

    Oh, yes, and I don't much like doing those listy things for myself either.

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  2. Good post, Dallas. It is important as a writer to know your character well. I don't do a pre-write character sketch either, but as you write, it's helpful to keep notes on the development. That helps you not start out with Suzy having blue eyes in the opening scene and end up with brown eyes in Chapter 15.

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  3. Yes, exactly Heidi -- it's very helpful to keep physical details of your character straight in this way. I know it is an activity that won't work for everyone, but I've found it very helpful. For any parents or teachers out there, in my teaching experience it has been a great way to get reluctant young writers/students to start developing a story!

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  4. Great suggestion Dallas. Of course the benefit of this is that you then have a fantastic "who am I" blog post you can put up in your character's voice (something I'll definitely be trying out). I do fairly extensive character outlines (including lengthy backstories, though not 30 pages!) before I start to write, but like Madcap Maggie, sometimes they confound me by developing in ways I hadn't predicted in my outlining.

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  5. Good suggestions, Dallas. I sometimes use this sort of questionnaire for my major characters. I find it works quite well.

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  6. Great post! Here are some more questions that work for me.

    What are three things that make you mad?

    What was the name of your first love?

    Did it work out, and if not, why not?

    What do you do when you're nervous?

    Are you afraid to die? Why or why not?

    Would you rather walk, ride a horse, or ride in a carriage?

    Can you cook? If so, what's your specialty?

    Do you forgive and forget or hold a grudge?

    What's your biggest flaw?

    What is your quirkiest habit?

    What is the most cowardly thing you've ever done?

    What were the earliest and theoretically the most important influences?

    What is his/her conflict? Does she settle this conflict on her own or does she have help?

    What does he/she fear most? Does this keep him/her from achieving his/her goals?

    What are his/her special talents?

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  7. Wow Kathy wonderful questions -- I'm adding them to my list! :)

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  8. Very interesting and useful post. Not sure about the 30 pages, but doing a Q&A is a great idea.

    Will link to this article.

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