Photographic Categories

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

How Well Do You Know Your Characters?

A writer develops characters and then lives with them for a while. In some cases, months or even years. You’d think we’d get to know our characters well. And then someone asks a question that throws you for a complete loop.

Let me explain. I’ve been working on A Reason For Dying since the end of 2004 - 3+ years. The characters in the novel seem like acquaintances, well in some cases, family. Over the course of time, you get to know these fictitious folks. You know what they look like, what they act like, what they like to eat, etc. As a writer, you absolutely need to know everything about your characters. After all, you are controlling their world, making their decisions, setting the course of their actions. They need to be, well, their own person. They need to be consistent. Otherwise they won’t come alive on paper.

When I first started writing, I never would have believed that I would be hearing my characters in my head and in my dreams. But it happens. Just like a mother seems to know what her newborn child wants, an author should know what their characters want and what they will do in any given circumstance and how they will react. I took the advice of other authors and prepared backgrounds on my major characters. I know plenty about my protagonist Laura Daniels that isn’t revealed in the 1st novel and stuff that’s likely never to be written about, ever. But it’s the stuff that defines her character and make her act like Laura Daniels and not Wilfred Bereswill.
Some of my characters are so well defined, my wife, who is invaluable to me as a critique reader, knows when they do something out of place and let’s me know it. So all is well and good, until somebody asked me about Laura Daniels…

What is the arc of her “hero’s journey” story — what internal demons is she facing as she confronts these external terrorists?

Who’s on her side, and who’s going to take her by surprise?

What are her greatest strengths and weaknesses?

What does she personally stand to lose?

And what’s at stake in the larger picture — what does the world stand to lose if she doesn’t succeed?

These are questions I was asked when I got help on writing the back cover copy. These are questions an experienced writer asks if they need to know about your characters. I was able to respond to these questions, but I had to really think about them first, which surprised me.

So, how well do you know your characters?


Josephine Damian said...


Saw your entry on BookEnds. Nice one. Congrats on your first release coming out soon.

Characters? I think not knowing them is the biggest reason for writer's block.

Great post.


Wilfred Bereswill said...

Thanks for stopping by, Josephine. I used to think you could get by on plot alone. I no longer think that way.