A Tip For Getting To Know Your Characters

MR_BENN_CIRCLE_LGOne piece of advice for writing a great story, which comes back time and time again, is to make sure you create realistic and compelling characters.If you have great characters then the reader will genuinely care what happens to them, and your story will be more engaging.

I suppose it’s kind of obvious and we probably all try to create characters who we believe in but with varying degrees of success. I heard of a technique this week from the writer David Mitchell (you know, Cloud Atlas etc.) which he uses in every story he writes. I thought to myself, if it’s good enough for him then it’s good enough for me; and if it’s good enough for me then it’s good enough for you. So, here it is…

A Letter From Your Character

He writes a letter from them to himself explaining who they are. As it’s a letter it has to be in their voice, using the vocabulary which they would use, and in this letter they explain to him who they are and what their opinions are on various subjects.

Apparently, he performs this exercise a couple of times for each character and by the end of it he has a clear identity of who they are and what they think about the world. This sounds pretty straight-forward and the best ideas always are. I’m sure they probably teach this on writing courses and if they do then you probably know it already, but I’ve been quite inspired by it.

His example went something like this, but this is my take on it:

Hello Michael,

I’m Jack Doherty, I’m 36 years old and I live in a small apartment next to The Thames. I’ve not always lived here, I was born in Scotland but moved south of the border when I was 7. My father was in the army so we moved around a lot as a child and I never really felt that I belonged anywhere. This probably explains the restlessness in my adult life. 

Main desires – Here are my main desires…

This is what I’m focussed on…

This is what I think about money… religion… politics… relationships… sport… music… films… art… fashion… spirituality… family… the future… my past… history… war… gadgets… travel… computers… cars… children… etc.

And this was how it went. He explained that he didn’t go into each subject in depth but a shallow covering on such a broad range gave him a good enough understanding of who he was dealing with. Once the character was formed in his own mind he then felt confident enough to put him into a story.

I was blown away by this idea and can see how it will help. Given that you may have ten main characters in your story, this is a very do-able exercise which will add more value to your story than any other planning tip I’ve ever heard of. Give it a go and let me know how you do.

Following the comments: here is a link to a similar process called the Character Interview, which works on similar themes. 


Until next time…


8 responses to “A Tip For Getting To Know Your Characters

  1. In theory I can appreciate the concept, but in my opinion the most interesting things about characters wouldn’t show up in a letter like that because they are the things that characters don’t realize about themselves.

    • True, but those things will come out during the story. At least this gives a clear picture of who you’re dealing with. It’s almost the same amount of information that you’d have on a real person in your life.

  2. I’ve heard of this concept. There’s also the character interview.

  3. I’m quite fond of the “Character Interview” method as well. I’ve used it in all my work so far, and it never fails to reveal some interesting tidbits that I wouldn’t have thought of had I not approached it as a Q & A. I run through a complete example here: http://www.nat-russo.com/2012/12/how-do-you-find-characters-voice.html

  4. Great post, made me reflect on some of the things I’ve done to ‘get into a characters head’. Only done it a couple of times, but I’ve written a short story in the first person for a couple of characters around a key event in their past (i.e. before the novel they are in is set). Found that doing it in the first person helps me test out personality quirks, but that focussing on a specific pressure point if you like in their past helps reveal certain facets of the type of person they are. It’s worked quite well. Plus it also helped me drive out some detail that can make up some element of the book (e.g. if that character ever talks about/reflects on that event), so it still felt productive.
    That said, I like the idea of the same structured approach (particularly the interviews) to teasing some of those details out…although I am thinking that maybe using the same approach might mean I see too many similarities in characters voices… over thinking as usual, as I won’t know until I try. Thanks for sharing!

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