To tell a compelling story…

Know them intimately

Posted on: March 21, 2011

This weekend, I had the incredible privilege of meeting author Eloisa James at my local RWA chapter meeting. As she spoke, my mind wandered – not in an Oh-not-another-boring-meeting way- but in a synapses-firing-at-warp-speed way. Eloisa admits she is a pantser not a plotter but likes to truly know her characters before she starts a story. Listening to her as well as the members sitting near me reminded me of a blog post (forgive me, I can’t remember whose) where we’d discussed ways to know your characters. I’d posted a comment about one technique I use to get to know my characters: I take them shopping.

Shopping tells you a lot about a person. Does your hero favor designer labels over knock-offs or simply doesn’t care if his clothes come from Armani or Costco? Does your heroine scour the clearance racks or spend outside her budget on whims? How do they manage long lines and crowded parking lots? Are they rude to store employees?

My two teenage sons would prefer to peel the skin off their bodies with a butter knife than go shopping with me. They’re content with any pair of jeans as long as they’re not Rap brands. (Since I twitch and shake when I see a guy with droopy-drawer jeans on, this makes me very happy.) They don’t care much for status labels, either. In many ways, this makes my life easy but since I frequently have to shop alone and return stuff later, it can also be inconvenient.

I jotted down all the ideas I had:

Put him on stage

Is your character comfortable in the spotlight or would he prefer to borrow the butter knife from my sons? Perhaps it’s not a stage but a business presentation. Does your heroine avoid public speaking, practice in front of a mirror for days, or just wing her presentation? Maybe it’s a swanky cocktail party. Does your hero hold up the walls or mingle? Does he work the room or is he busy plotting his early exit? Maybe it’s a speech at school for your YA characters. Gah!

Send them to therapy

What are the deep, dark secrets that haunt your characters? You know, the things that would come up in therapy, like parents that never understood her or expected too much. Did he witness a crime when he was a toddler that still causes flashbacks? Does she have any phobias like Triskaidekaphobia?

Work these into your plot.

Run the numbers

During a break in Eloisa’s speech, one of our members suggested numerology. Take your character’s name and visit a website like this. It may interest you to know that my full name, Patricia Ann Blount, totals 73 and that my soul urge number is 3. Here’s what the site has to say about that:

Word skills may be your thing; speaking, writing, (Hello!) acting, singing. In a positive sense, the 3 energy is friendly, outgoing and always very social.

Most of it is true for me, except the singing part. Dogs howl when I sing. Ears bleed. It’s …not pretty. Use numerology or astrology to gather traits for your characters. You could even use the meanings of names to guide you. I did this in SEND when my MC had to change his name. He chose Daniel because it means God is my judge.

Suffer the bureaucracy

How would your hero fare in line at your local motor vehicles department? What about navigating one of those automated phone systems that have him pressing 1 incessantly? Even the most patient people I know are frustrated by these experiences.

Load up the straws

Ever have a week or month where things go horribly, insanely awry? Not just a bad day, but a continuous string of bad, unexpected and bizarre things? Brakes go one fire on one car just as your spouse takes the other car for the day. Imagine the last time you experienced a period of extended bad luck and put your characters in the same situation. What’s the melt down like? My melt downs involve tears and chocolate. My husband’s involve colorful language and flying objects and credit card bills to replace the things that broke as he flung them across a room. My mother’s were rants accompanied by slamming doors.

Give them the flu

If you have children, think about how they behave when they’re sick. My sons only wanted to be held when they were little. All day. By me and nobody else. Now that they’re teens, they just stay in bed and sleep. There’s a commercial currently on TV that pokes fun at the “man cold” but my point is, you never really know someone until you have to care for them when they’re sick.

Live together

You know the old adage you never know someone until you have to live with them? Imagine your MCs as room mates. Does he leave the toilet seat up and toothpaste globs in the sink? Does she hang panties and bras on the shower rod and spend all her spare money on tabloids? Perhaps she NEVER eats at the table, but only in front of the TV? Does she get up early or stay up late? Does he hog the covers in bed? Can he operate the lawn mower or does he hire someone to keep the grass mowed?

Take a peek inside the bathroom. Does she keep her cosmetics and feminine products scattered on every available surface or hide them neatly away? Is his toe fungus cream sitting on the toilet tank lid?

Armed with a list of traits and characteristics, look for places where conflict can be introduced. Perhaps you’ve discovered your MC is like my sons – he ABHORS shopping, but falls for a woman who is a buyer for a major designer, or owns an antique shop. Or, make the conflict internal – the character who hates to shop must now do so regularly for an ill parent.

Use Eloisa’s Character Bible suggestion to keep it all straight. And then, get to work.

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7 Responses to "Know them intimately"

Oh, good suggestions! My MC is claustrophobic and hates weddings. So naturally she gets locked in a closet and has to fill in for a bride in the fanciest wedding ever. 😉

Oo! Planning a wedding should be on the list. Does she turn into Bridezilla planning a $50,000 wedding or is she happy getting married by an Elvis impersonator at a cheesy Vegas chapel?

If I had to do THAT all over again, I would NOT have gone the traditional route. My designer ivory satin gown with Alencon lace trim and the Cathedral train sits under my bed covered in a layer of dust for the daughter I never had and who, even if she had been born, would likely NOT have wanted to wear it anyway.

These are interesting ideas. I modified a character worksheet I found here: http://bit.ly/hxB1NC . I also sometimes write scenes from a different character’s perspective than the POV of the novel, or write a short about a time in their life not included in the story.

This is great, Beth! Thanks for posting the link. When I was rewriting SEND, I had entire chapters written from Julie’s POV that I used to show what Dan (the actual POV character) saw and how he interpreted her actions/reactions.

this is a great post. there are so many ways to get to know a character and i struggle to find which one works for me, instead of me writing down what i *think* the character wants…

Thanks, Abby! These are all just ways to get us thinking about our characters at a more subconscious level… (their subconscious, I mean).

I think it’s what the character doesn’t yet know he or she wants that’s most compelling.

Some great tips for me to try when I can make time for more than just writing for F&G. But hey, writing is writing.

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Hi! Welcome to my blog. I’m Patty.

I'm a writer represented by Denise Little, The Ethan Ellenberg Agency. I love to tell stories, to boast about my sons, to indulge in a serious chocolate obsession. (I often combine these passions.)

During the day, I write software user guides, but at night, I let my hair down... and write whatever I want. (I know. You expected something else. Sorry.) I'm currently working on a YA story about sexting gone horribly bad called SEND. I use this blog to explore my passions.

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