Knowing Your Characters

How well do you know the characters you build your novel around? Do you know them well enough that you find yourself thinking about them when you’re not writing? Without realizing that you’ve slipped into their character, do you ever find yourself talking the way they talk? Do you find yourself using their pet expressions? If you do, then chances are that your readers will also be thinking about these characters when they read your book. But how do we achieve this level of intimacy with our fictional characters?

When I first started writing, I sometimes caught myself assigning the wrong physical traits on my characters. Maybe the man had blue eyes at the beginning of the story and brown eyes later in the book. Or maybe he was 5′ 11″ at first and a week later grew to be 6′ 2″. This kind of mistake can be  a serious  threat to your reputation as an author, especially if you have a wide, soon to be dwindling, readership. Luckily, I caught these mistakes in time and I was determined to avoid them in the future.

The discrepancy in physical appearance is not the only problem we need to be aware of. We also need to take care with the actions we have our characters performing. We need to know our character’s personality well enough to determine if they would do the thing we have them doing, or speak the way we have them speaking.

Before you write, it’s a good idea to do a character analysis for your main actors. It need not be fancy or indepth. A few notes will do, but if you have them written down you can refer to them any time you are unsure of what attributes you gave your hero back in chapter two.

Charts and lists are available from a variety of sources. Simply google character analysis  or character profiles for writers and you’ll find them.

I’d like to list some of the basic points of information you should have written down somewhere (be it on post-it notes or on a computer file or on paper) before you begin your novel.

  • Name, gender, age and physical appearance are the first, most obvious, ones.
  • How the character feels about his/her appearance. (This can have a profound effect on his/her behaviour in the book.)
  • Family, friends, education, and domiciles
  • Marital status, job experience, relationships within the family and with co-workers.
  • Sex, religion, political and moral beliefs
  • General health, intelligence
  • Manner of speaking, voice, dialect, slang, accent
  • What is he/she proud/ashamed of?
  • The character’s goals in the story, and what stands in his/her way

Once you have made notes on this character, you will feel as if you know them in real life and this will most likely transfer to your readers’ perception of that character too.

My French-Canadian character, Monique, in The Wind Weeps, had a habit of conflating two English expressions when she was trying to learn that language. She had heard, “Sure thing,” and “For sure,” but in her case it came out “For sure t’ing.” While I was writing this novel, Monique was in my head a lot. I felt as if I really knew her.

Was I glad I had done a character analysis of her before writing?

For sure t’ing!

Did I get to like her a lot as I wrote this book?

For sure t’ing!

Will it help you to write your novel if you do a character analysis first?

For sure t’ing!

Will readers internalize these characters more readily and love to read about them?

For sure t’ing!