Stranger Danger! Notes on Getting to Know Your Characters

August 4, 2012 § 6 Comments

I’ve been promising to post something about bringing your characters to life for a while now, and I apologize for the delay. Life gets in the way. In particular, searching for and then landing a new job ate up most of my free time, and what little was left I devoted to my writing. And writing is what I should be doing right now, but since I’m starting a new project, and since starting a new project involves getting to know my characters, I thought this would be an ideal time to take a few moments and talk about it here.

Every writer has his or her own way of fleshing out characters. Most use the Goal-Conflict-Motivation technique, which has been discussed to death. If you want to read more on it, however, let me point you to an excellent post over on Pub(lishing) Crawl. And for a handy dandy GMC form, click here (PDF).

GMC is a great way (possibly the best way) to get to know your characters. Once you work through it for each of your major characters, you’ll find the story almost writes itself. The downside is, sometimes it’s not the story you had in mind at the outset. It’s a Frankenstein conundrum, in a way; once your bring a character to life, she might not always do what you wanted her to do. But the story usually ends up being better, so my advice is to just follow where your characters lead.

If for whatever reason GMC just doesn’t work for you, or if you only want to wade through it for your major characters and need something quicker for the supporting roles, there are other ways to get to know your characters. Here’s a few of my favorites.

Fill Out an Application

When I was just starting out as a writer, someone told me to get to know my characters by having them fill out a job application. Having just filled out several applications in my recent job search, I can tell you that there are some incredibly detailed applications out there. Try to find a corporate employment application for some place like IBM. Or go to a site like and create a resume for your character using the online forms. Why? Because like most average Americans, your characters are going to spend most of their lives at their jobs. What they choose to do for a living can tell you a lot about who they are. You’ll have to delve a little deeper than just filling out an application, but it’s a great start. You’ll learn where they went to high school and college, what they got a degree in (if they did), and where they’ve been employed.

Once you know this, start filling in the details. Interview your characters for the job. Ask why they chose that college, and what drew them to that field of study. Were they called to it? Is it a passion? A drive? If the latter, what drove them to it? Childhood tragedy? A mentor? Then ask the tough questions some interviewers like to ask. If you had a million dollars, what would you do? What are you passionate about, and why? What is your dream job?

This technique won’t tell you everything you need to know about your character, but it can fill in some blanks and lead you to surprising places.

Read a Biography

Filling out job applications can be great if your character’s career is one your familiar with, or one that can be easily researched. But what if your character’s job is a little off the beaten path? Try reading a biography of someone who had that job.

For some reason, I’m fascinated with stories about professional killers. I think it may have started when I saw Grosse Pointe Blank for the first time. I’ve watched dozens of films about professional killers, from The Professional to Red, but when I sat down to write my own assassin, I realized that I knew nothing about how that world really works. So I started looking for biographies of real hit men, and found Joey the Hitman: The Autobiography of a Mafia Killer. What a gold mine! Joey wasn’t the slick super killer I’d seen in the movies, but rather a warts-and-all real Mafia hitter. He made mistakes, he sometimes didn’t get his man, and he gave me an inside look that provided a wealth of great details for my story.

No matter what your character does, there’s probably a biography or autobiography out there about someone with the same job. And if not, there’s probably an magazine article or a TV news expose or something that you can crib from. It may take some digging, but in the Google Age, it’s rare that you can’t find a good, inside look at a profession…even if that profession is illegal. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the illegal jobs are the easiest to find dirt on. But you can find detailed looks at any job, from CERN researchers to Alaskan fishermen to professional dog walkers.

Get Inside Their Heads

Sometimes, though, it’s tough to get to know a character if they are so far outside the norm that they are practically unknowable. For example, say your villain is a serial rapist. You know everyone is the hero of their own story, but how can someone like that possibly see himself as a hero? How do you get to see the world from his point of view? Not many serial rapists write autobiographies.

You could read a psychology textbook or a true crime book about the hunt for a serial rapist. There are also books for writers about these people. My favorite is Writer’s Guide to Character Traits. There’s also the excellent The Writer’s Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior. These two books break down dozens of mental illnesses into layman’s terms specifically for writers, saving you a lot of work while still giving you peek beneath the skullcap of some of the world’s worst people. And it doesn’t have to be just bad people, either. The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits details the adult personality types, child types, career traits, and lots more.

Cast the Movie

One final method I like to use is what I call “casting the movie.” If your story were made into a movie, who would you see playing the characters? I’ve found this amazingly helpful, especially for writing dialogue. If I can “hear” how a particular actor might say the lines I’m writing, it helps me keep the dialogue fresh and original. You don’t have to limit yourself to actors, either; I often cast my friends in my stories. I have the good fortune of knowing many colorful people, and several of them have become models for my characters.

Casting the movie also helps in writing descriptions of your characters. Instead of the generic tall, leggy blonde, perhaps your heroine has the whiplash smile of Ellen Barkin, or the elfin features of Carey Mulligan. Elmore Leonard blatantly does in his books, often having one character describe another with a comparison to someone famous.

Sometimes I’ll go as far as finding an image of the actor or actress I’m basing my character upon, printing it out, and posting it on the cork board above my desk. This has the dual benefit of helping me keep the actor’s mannerisms in mind as I’m writing, and having them stare at me, silently demanding that I finish the damn story so they can live.

Like Summer Glau is doing right now, asking why I’m blogging instead of working on her story. I guess I better get back to it …


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