Happy Friday, novelists! I hope you’ve had productive weeks. Today we’re going to talk about character.
Imagine sitting in an otherwise empty room with a stranger. The lighting in the room is bad–you can’t really see the other person, but you do know she’s there. Eventually, you start to tell the stranger about her life. The more you talk, the more definition she gains. She may have aspects of you and/or people you know. You do this for an hour every day for several months.
That’s more or less your relationship with the main character of your novel.
Getting to know your protagonist can be one of the greatest challenges of novel writing. You have to understand her motivations and likeliest behaviors in any given situation. If she breaks type, you have to know why. And while a lot of that work gets done internally and then on the page, it is helpful to have a sense of your character as you begin to and continue to write.
Fortunately, there are countless fun exercises break the ice with your protagonist. They can be helpful when you start your project or if you get stuck.
Empty the purse/pockets/car/desk.
This classic exercise asks you to list 10-20 items that your protagonist regularly carries with her. It is often most successful when you mix the unusual (a rusty antique key) with the utterly mundane (wad of receipts). As you list, you may discover a theme among the items or you may have to make those connections yourself. Either eventuality can provide helpful insights into your characters.
Go window shopping.
The best kind of shopping–of course now, you can even do it online. (If you’re writing a historical novel, consider fashion exhibits instead.) While in most narratives there’s little need to painstakingly describe every article of your character’s clothing or each piece of furniture in her house, a general sense of what she wears and how she decorates is often helpful. Speaking of which…
Check out local real estate.
If your protagonist lives in your town, you may very well know what their home looks like. Maybe it’s a lot like your house. But chances are, you’ve set your novel elsewhere or even created your own community. Hop on Realtor and find the perfect place. And then, find the house in which your character yearns to live.
Take a quiz.
The internet abounds with personality quizzes of varying quality and although modern psychology has dismissed most of them, they can still help you as you get to know your characters. A personal favorite of mine is the Myers-Briggs test which categorizes people in one of 16 personality types. Try answering as you believe your character would–or work backwards after reading about each type. Another great option is the MAPP career test. What profession should your character be? What are they instead? Why?
Mine old photos.
Trying to get a handle on your protagonist’s facial expressions? Check out old yearbooks at your local library or look online (just a cursory Google image search yields thousands of potential faces like these). If you’re looking for something a little older, consider venturing to an antique store. Many carry small portraits from the turn of the century.
Yes, at some point it always gets back to writing. But this is writing without the pressure. Start with a situation. Someone cuts in line at the bank. There’s a minor fender bender. A stray dog wanders into the yard. A mysterious envelope arrives. Someone leaves twenty dollars on the street. For ten minutes, write about what your character does in this situation. Include dialogue, description, everything. Do not self-edit. Go with the first thing that comes to mind and see what insights it yields.
How do you get to know your characters? Let us know in the comments!
About the Author: Julia Patt
Julia Patt, Contributing Editor, from Chestertown, MD, is a graduate of Sweet Briar College and the MFA program at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where she was a fiction editor for The Greensboro Review. Her young adult novels—i was a fourth grade zombie slayer and Through Waterless Places—were both shortlisted for Mslexia’s 2012 Children’s Novel Competition, and her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Surreal South ’11, Stymie, and PANK.