Getting To Know Your Characters

For me, writing is all about the characters. It is the characters who come to me first, with their lives and their problems. I let them set up camp in my head for a bit, try to ignore them while I am busy with other things, and then, inevitably I can’t drown them out and they get the attention they demand. They get to tell their story. By the time I start jotting down notes about them and their story, I already feel like I know them quite well. In fact I usually feel quite smug about it. I do like character led fiction, you see, and it would not be unfair to assert that The Catcher In The Rye is probably my favourite book of all time.

I’ve read it tons of times, and never get bored, yet my husband couldn’t even manage it once. Boring, he said. Nothing really happens, except he moans and worries a lot. He does concede that there is a plot of sorts, one where the character goes on a bit of a jaunt, escapes his reality for a while and goes a little bit crazy in the process, but it was not enough of a plot to hold his interest.

For me, it was a case of falling in love. Feeling like I knew Holden, because Holden was so like me, and if he was real and we met in real life, we would really get along, and he would stop thinking everyone was phony. Anyway…off on a tangent there slightly, but I was trying to explain how important character is to me in fiction. I love it. Can’t get enough of it. Action, drama, suspense and thrills are all great, don’t get me wrong, but they all fall flat without great characters. Give me a few good characters doing not much, over a page turner with unlikable and unbelieveable ones, any day.

Developing characters, making them speak and act and think, is one of the best things about writing. It’s probably my favourite part of the whole thing. Yes I appreciate descriptive prose and beautiful narratives, and yes I have respect for a page-turning plot, and action that peaks and troughs at all the right times, but the characters are everything to me. Stories come from people, without people, there would be no stories.

With me, it is the people, and the stories that come first, and everything else evolves from there. But even so, I have had to admit to myself lately that I don’t know them as well as I think I do when I get started.

I often stumble along in the first draft, making notes, hitting walls, having great writing days followed by abysmal ones, and sometimes it is really hard to pinpoint what it is I’m struggling with. This happened a lot when I was writing the very first draft of what will be my next release, The Tree Of Rebels. You see, for the first time, I had the plot idea first. Weird. Luckily for me I already had a character in my head, and a name, and she had been lingering for a while, maybe wondering where she could slot in. So I used her and got started. I had most of it planned out, but obviously there were surprises along the way as well. My main aim was impressing my daughters and writing something dystopian in nature that would hold their attention and keep them gripped.

Maybe I focused too much on this. Maybe the waiting character I slotted in was not loud enough in my head. Whatever it was, I struggled. Then I realised something. I looked back on all of my novels, even the ones where the voice of the character had come to me before any kind of plot took place, and I realised that this was normal. Of course I didn’t know Lissie Turner that well yet. That was what I was struggling with. I’d gone into it assuming I knew her, assuming I understood her, and oh how wrong I was.

The first draft, no matter how intricately you have planned and described your precious characters, no matter how many lengthy bio’s you have scripted, no matter how many images of them you have found and pinned on Pinterest; the first draft is all about getting to know them. It’s like meeting a stranger for the first time and going on a little, somewhat awkward journey with them. Do they take sugar in tea? You don’t know, so you ask. Which way to they tend to lean politically? You’d like to know, but you’re scared to ask. Do they swear? Do they have a loud, or annoying laugh? How are they going to react when you start throwing hurdles and dilemmas at them?  You think you know, but you don’t.

Realising this really helped me to relax with that awkward first draft. I decided to just get it written, because I had the plot all in place, and that was the main thing to get done. All the themes and ideas and images and so on would work themselves out, would pop up and blend in, and tie up as they often tend to do naturally. And the same would happen with Lissie, and the other characters. By the end of the first draft, I knew them better. We had formed a friendship and would definitely be travelling together again soon. But things were still a tad tense, a tad clumsy.

I jumped into the second draft and saw it for what it was. It was going deeper, getting under the skin, revealing the flaws and the fears and the motives. I had to accept that Lissie was really a stranger to me, and then allow the following drafts to entice her to become known. I had to have faith that this process would happen, and that I would feel I knew her better with every draft I completed. Looking back, this is also what happened with my other books, although admittedly it was definitely easier because the characters started shouting at me before I thought up stories for them… but more and more of them became revealed to me with each draft, edit and rewrite. Now I could easily tell you exactly how any of those characters would react in any situation. I could tell you what they would do, say, think, what their facial expressions would be and so on. To me, they are real people. That is what needs to happen before characters can make the reader believe in them too.

I am just about to dive into the final draft of The Tree Of Rebels, and I cannot tell you how excited I am. It has been a challenge, this book, for many reasons, not least the issue I just explained. I have decided to make some major changes, so the final draft may actually become more of a rewrite, than a last edit.

I am wary of the process and scared I will fail. But one thing I do feel better about. One thing I do feel confident about now. I know Lissie Turner. Finally, truly, I know her inside and out, and that is going to help make this thing work more than anything else!





7 thoughts on “Getting To Know Your Characters

  1. I enjoyed this post. It’s very interesting how you can develop a relationship with your characters. I wrote a three book detective series with characters that I really enjoy. The hero and his sidekick joke around and team up on people. After the third one I wrote a much darker terrorism thriller. Although it was an enjoyable experience, I found myself not having as much fun. I am now on the fourth in the detective series and the characters are like old friends that I’m enjoying connecting with. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Chantelle I SO loved this! I love how you talk about characters coming to you, because it is often like that for me as well. I might not always have a story right off, but eventually their story comes along and I have no choice but to write it down somewhere. I don’t want to forget them in a momentary lapse, but I don’t want them up there forever either! 🙂


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