Wednesday, May 25, 2011

How well do you know your characters?

I know very little about my characters before I start writing. Sometimes I’ll start with a vague idea of what they look like, or just a given name, and see where it takes me. Or sometimes I’ll start with a scene and, like a director, zoom in on one particular character and follow him to see where he takes me. Or her. I’m an equal opportunity stalker.

Pantsers like myself rarely know our characters when we get started. It can be very exciting, like sharing a carriage on the Oriental Express with a mysterious stranger who hands you a key in an envelope and says, while looking over his shoulder at the approaching secret police: “You must take this! The life of the dauphin depends on it!” And you know absolutely nothing about this person, except that it’s going to be a hell of a ride to Istanbul.

Unfortunately, sometimes the person you hope is your ticket to mystery and intrigue turns out to be Roger, who works in Accounts Payable of a multinational plastics-manufacturing company specialising in making castors for office chairs. And you really wish you’d picked another seat before the journey got underway.


So, for the plotters out there, how much do you know about your characters before you begin writing their stories? Do you wait for them to reveal their secrets as you journey together? Or do you know enough details about them to set them up a fake profile on an internet dating site?*

Let’s test that theory.

What is your main character’s star sign?
What is their favourite colour?
What is their favourite song?
What is their guilty pleasure?
How much money do they have in their bank account?
What is their favourite book or movie?
Do they like long walks on the beach?

So, can you answer any of those questions about your main character? I can’t, because they haven’t told me yet. And also, I can’t get Roger to shut up about the difference between polyurethanes and halogenated plastics for long enough to ask him. 

* This may be fraudulent. But also fun.


  1. I'm a semi-plotter. I don't hard core plot every aspect of characters because it takes the fun of discovery out of the process, but I'm coming round to the benefits of casting characters with the right need/desire to fit the story. Saves a lot of false starts and wasted time. But as for the colour of their underwear etc, I'm not too bothered.

  2. Good questions. I'm an avid plotter and I meticulously try to plan my characters before hand. But, no matter what I do, they usually need drastic changes after the first draft. For my current novel, I don't know how many drafts I've done and I'm still struggling to make the main character clearer.

    I think when depicting a character is this difficult, it means you have a good one. Complicated characters are awesome.

  3. Sandra, I wish I was even a semi-plotter. I've tried it, and made it as far as half a page of rubbish notes before giving up and diving straight into the writing. I have made a lot of false starts!

  4. Hi Teralyn,
    I agree that complicated characters are awesome. Nothing bores me more than a cardboard-cutout of a character. To me, character is the most important hook in the entire story.

  5. Sorry, not a plotter, but I do try to sketch out a decent backstory for my characters before I start writing. I have to know SOMETHING substantial about them in order to know how they will react. Still, there is something to be said for discovering who they are along the way. That is part of the attraction of being a pantser, isn't it? By the time I'm done writing I know tons more about who they are, and then have to go back and layer stuff in to the earlier parts of the novel, but it is always a fun improvement, IMO.

  6. Totally agree, LG! It's always fun to backtrack and add in layers. It's like tracing a river to its source!

  7. I'm one of those backwards writers. I'm a plot plotter (does that make sense?) but I never really sketch out my characters. This comes back to bite me once my MC reveals a new trait and I then have to go back and try to weave that bit into the overall story. But I suppose you're right, it IS like tracing a river, so I don't mind going back and improving the story!

  8. I'm a *hardcore* plotter/planner/outliner. I know all of that (or something similar) about my characters (once I've finished my character outline). To horrify pantsers yet further, I have a character outline specifically for protagonists, another for antagonists, and another for secondary characters. They average about 15 pages (questions only, about 40-50 pages with responses).

  9. This is a comforting post for me to read :) Glad to know I'm not the only one who doesn't know their characters until they write!

    I am a plotter, but still. Writing down facts about a character on paper just isn't the same as seeing a personality react with outside stimuli. I don't really get a feel for who they are till after I see their actions throughout my story.

  10. Fun questionnaire. I am going to have to interview my characters. I am certainly a discovery writer (pantser) but I write character driven stories so knowing my characters is essential!!

  11. I am a plotter and I need to know my characters very well before I write. The plot can be flexible, but the characters are not. I need to know what they would do in any given situation so I can follow their lead.

    I can't answer most of those questions because my WIP is an epic fantasy and my character live in a world where those things are irrelevant. ;)

  12. What happens with characters that don't have star signs? Like if there is a different conception of time cosmology kinda doesn't work.....reading about the Babylonians has me rethinking all that from my character charts for my SF wip.

    Otherwise that questionnaire was delightful for helping me start a new project where I had no idea anything about my characters except their names.

  13. Hi, TL! Editing is much more fun when you're still technically writing!

    Margo, wow! Just, wow! I envy plotters, and I wish I had the same discipline! But at least I can take the moral high ground here and say that I'm saving the rainforests, right?

    Hi, Barbara! I'm also glad to know I'm not the only total pantser out there!

  14. Sarah and Steph, good points! These questions only work in our world, I guess. Steph, you'll have to tell me which of Hammurabi's laws your characters would be most likely to break!

  15. Hey Jen, I gave you an award on my blog today. :)



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...