"I Know You, Al": Getting to Know Your Characters

Saturday, September 29

Photo by Anna DiProspero

In Richard Russo's novel "Straight Man," the main character is a creative writing teacher who has a few tricks to teach his students how to become better writers. Whenever their characters seem flimsy or unbelievable, he says "I know you, Al" to prompt them to elaborate on who their characters are: "I know you, Al. You're the kind of guy who would hold a door open for a woman" or "I know you, Mary. You're the kind of woman who would quit her job to hike across the country for a year."

It's an exercise that could benefit all writers.

How well do you really know your characters? Getting to know the smallest details about them will help you to render them more believable and compelling, even if you never use those details in the story. Here are just a few of the things you can answer about your characters to help you get to know them better (and perhaps can use to make your story better):

Looks
A character is more than just white or black, tall or short, fat or thin. Features go beyond blonde or brunette, pale or tan, and pretty or ugly. Think about the smaller details. Does your character have a scar from when she fell off the bed when she was 5? Does he have a mole that grows just under his ear that makes him self-conscious when he kisses a woman? Or does she have a birthmark on the top of her foot that kind of looks like Elvis?
These are the kind of details that can really bring your character to life in your reader's mind.

Career
What your character does -- and what your character wants to do -- says a lot about who he is. Is he an architect who secretly dreamed of becoming a ballet dancer? Or is she a rock singer who really longs for the stability of an accounting job?
Don't limit yourself to picking out a single career. Follow your character's path to where she is now and look at the jobs that led her there. Then think about what she wants to do next and whether her path lines up with her dreams.

Family
Family is a rich source of conflict in any story, and it should be a large part of what informs your characters. Your story doesn't have to be about this family drama, but you should at least understand it to know your character better.
What are the relationships that your character has with family? What does family mean to your character? How often does he talk to his mother? Is she close to her sister? Did they live with their second cousins when they were younger? There is a lot of material to explore here.

Hobbies
The things we like to do in our spare time say a lot about who we are. Does your character enjoy creating miniature pastries out of clay? Or maybe he likes to run marathons in extreme conditions? Perhaps she enjoys foraging for mushrooms and capturing wild yeast to make her own sourdough bread.
Think about the hobbies your character would enjoy, as well as what his or her "favorites" might be. What kind of music does she like? What's his favorite movie? What authors do they like to read? These can say a lot about character.

If/Then
What kind of a guy or gal is your character? If he was put in a certain situation, what we he do? Is he the kind of guy who opens doors for woman? Is she the kind of gal who keeps working after she has a baby? Or is she the kind who stays home?
Think of hypothetical situations for your characters and think of how they would react. What does this say about their values? Their aspirations? Their integrity? The answers may or may not become a part of your story, but they will certainly help you to understand your character better.

Using these and other strategies to get to know your character better will only help you to write a stronger character that seems more real and more compelling for your readers. You don't have to include every detail you know about your character in your story, but you should certainly know everything you can about your character.

Lisa Shoreland is currently a resident blogger at Go college, where recently she’s been researching medical school grants. In her spare time, she enjoys creative writing and hogging her boyfriend’s PlayStation 3. To keep her sanity she enjoys practicing martial arts and bringing home abandon animals.

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