Oh, hi there [character], let’s chat…

I have a question.

How do you get to know your main characters? Do you sit and have a conversation with them? Do you collage them through music, photographs, etc? Do you free write in their voice? I’m fascinated by the process of becoming familiar with leading characters (and secondary ones, for that matter).

I was at a dinner get-together, and we began talking of how I get to know my characters. I tried to explain, without sounding *completely* insane, that I talk to them, that I like to interrogate them, sometimes. If you’ve ever seen the show Lie to Me, when an interrogation begins, they always try to get a baseline from the people they’re speaking to. To do this, they begin with emotionless questions, no why or how or feeling. They start by asking, "What is your name?" and "Where do you live?" And soon enough, the person being questioned begins to slip, to let things out that are less objective, more personal.

Also, there’s this added bonus I find of working in first person, as I did with NW and am now doing with ATB. I don’t get nearly as much writer’s block. I mean, of course I get stuck on plot, but in terms of actual inability to *write* not so much. It’s because no matter what happens, I can get my narrator to speak. They might not want to talk about the story, might not want to actually narrate in a relevant way at first, but just the ability to sit and type in their voice…I always find my way back to the road.

The other day I got stuck, so I just let Mackenzie ramble on, like this:

"When I first learned about the Archive, every time I fell or touched someone, I thought, that is going to be recorded. My life is going to be a record of every mark. It can be broken down like that, I marveled, relishing the logic, the distance. We are nothing but marks and moments. That’s the way I thought. Then I met my first History, face to face, and they weren’t books, and they weren’t lists, and they weren’t clearly written moments. They were people. Copies of people. Because the only way to truly record a person is not in words, not in still frames, but in bone and skin and memory. I didn’t know whether that should terrify or comfort me, that everything was backed up like that."

And while I don’t know if I can use any of it, it still helps me with her thought process, her mental state, etc.

So, I guess I’m just incredibly curious. How do you get to know your characters? How do you pry the details out of them? Do they just come to you, spreadsheet style, or do you have to dig?

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18 thoughts on “Oh, hi there [character], let’s chat…

  1. mp3mad says:

    Hi 🙂
    Great Blog. It is interesting how an author gets to know the characters. For me it begins with an image of them in my mind. Hello, who are you? What is your story? And I let them talk to me and through me.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Love From Canada

  2. veschwab says:

    Re: Characters
    I just find it fascinating how other writers go about it. I imagine sometimes characters just open themselves entirely to their writers, but mine never make it that easy lol. I do love it though when they start with an image.
    Most of my character begin with a scene, an image of them doing something, and then I’m left sitting there and going, “now what was that about?”

  3. megancrewe says:

    I do a variety of things, depending on the character and the story. There’s a lot of brainstorming where I’m just thinking about the character and working out the details of his/her situation, what backstory would fit best with the conflicts that are going to arise, that sort of thing. I often also prod them to talk in my head, sort of like what you did with Mackenzie–I sort of say, “Okay, [name], talk about why you’re doing this/how you feel about ___/etc.” and see what they say. Sometimes I “interview” them, but I usually prefer to just let them ramble. I find I come up with more useful stuff that way.
    I’ve also found it very useful to imagine scenes from their earlier life (childhood, usually, since most of my characters are teens). Scenes that wouldn’t make it into the actual story, but help me see how the character got where they are, and often reveal parts of their personality/goals/fears/etc. that I might not have realized otherwise.
    I usually know the things that are *most* important to my characters pretty easily, but I do have to dig and explore to figure out all the nuances–and often those change across drafts of the story as I figure things out or delve deeper.

  4. olmue says:

    Sometimes I interview them if they are being particularly quiet. A lot of times I write them into a variety of scenes–that may or may not have anything to do with the actual book–to see how they react. I can’t make a list beforehand; it’s the actual writing that makes them come alive and lets me see who they are.

  5. veschwab says:

    Oh, I like the observation about earlier life. That’s not something I’ve done a lot of in the past, but I’ll have to try it out. I can definitely see the value in it.

  6. veschwab says:

    That’s a great idea too, seeing how they function in different scenes. I’ll have to try it, since most of the time I only write them into scenes that are relevant to the story. My characters usually come to me IN a scene, and then it’s my job to unravel why and how they’re there and what they’re doing.

  7. I draw them and I imagine myself in their shoes as I’m falling asleep…oftentimes scenes that happened prior to the book.

  8. j_cheney says:

    One time I sat down at a desk with one of my main characters and did a job interview type discussion. She got up and walked away.
    I havent’ tried that since.

  9. Interesting topic…
    I’ve found if I over-think a character when they show up, they tend not to come back. So I try to keep my interviews/interrogations for when I think they can “handle” it. I’m at the point with the MCs in the work I’m about to query where we’ve been together so long that I have no problem sitting them down and being very direct- “I need to know x, y and z” and I know they won’t run away forever. They also might refuse to tell me anything, but at least they’ll be back.
    Something I do a lot was mentioned in a previous comment, which is writing a lot of scenes of backstory. In fact, I’m finding a lot of my answers for what needs to happen in the next book are coming from the backstory; things I didn’t need to know for the first book are suddenly very important and necessary for the second to work.
    I do a lot of other stuff with my characters… I have them fill out those silly surveys/memes that pass around facebook, take personality tests, stuff like that. A lot of times it’s totally random and doesn’t fit anywhere, but if I’m writing a scene and suddenly I do need to know if somebody would, in fact, ever go bungee jumping, I know where to look!

  10. veschwab says:

    Ah yes, the on-the-verge-of-sleep time is always a good time for character-building 🙂

  11. veschwab says:

    Hahaha :p
    Sad, but so true. I’ve been there. That’s why, when people are being interrogated, they’re generally chained to the chair.

  12. veschwab says:

    Very interesting. So that’s two points now for the back-story scenes. I do think I’ll have to try that. I always write a bit about the lives before, but haven’t until now taken the time to watch those scenes play out unless they were directly relevant.

  13. but haven’t until now taken the time to watch those scenes play out unless they were directly relevant.
    That’s what I used to do, but lately I’ve been doing something like what you were talking about above (writing in first person & just letting the character talk) but making it set in the past, and wow, the things that come up… And it’s things I didn’t even know how to ask about, and this way they won’t outright lie to me (as some of them are wont to do…).

  14. j_cheney says:

    Yeah, but I think that would leave them poorly disposed toward me forever…

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