Write for the Love of it!
Why you need to know your characters.
Glenna Mageau, Award Winning Author, Speaker, Writing Coach
Do you know why your protagonist, Sheila, has decided to go from a stay-at-home mom to taking up not only skydiving but competing world-wide?
If you don’t it’s hard to make that change in behavior, believable to your reader.
Writing a story is truly an incredible gift. Not only is it fun to do but it is a real test for a writer to be able to create not only something interesting to read but to write about characters who are believable and feel real for the reader.
What does that mean to have real and believable characters?
No matter what type of fiction an author is writing, the key is to create characters, whether human or not, that the readers know and understand. They need to be someone or something that the reader can see, understand what makes them act and react the way they do and be clear on what their role is.
They need to be relatable.
I know that early in my writing career, I used to sit down and just write my story. I used to get a lot of compliments about the stories that I wrote but to me there was always something missing. The stories were good and would emotionally grab someone but something wasn’t quite there. It didn’t have that wow factor. At the time I had no idea what that even meant! Then I took a course that suggested that I should interview my characters. To me that sounded grueling and I honestly didn’t see the point. I knew the story, I knew what was going on for the characters in the story so why would I need to know where they grew up, whether they had siblings, whether their first grade teacher told her something that would influence her the rest of her life…?
I did not get it.
Until I did it.
How it changed my story.
Okay, let me be honest. Even when I first did the exercise of interviewing my main character, because I still didn’t buy into how important it was, I did it very grudgingly and I really didn’t put down a lot of detail. Want to know what? I saw a difference almost immediately in how I wrote and what I was looking at.
I found that by knowing why my main character didn’t like the color purple, thanks to a prank her sister had done when she was fifteen, I was able to understand how and why my main character was so straight-laced. She hated pranks and surprises. I was able to make her real. It gave me a new look at my main character, who she was, what she really wanted and how she was going to get it. I was able to give her the normal problems, issues and dreams and her struggles with going through life. It added a whole new dimension to her. It truly shifted how I saw her and how I wrote about her. It helped me to get a better sense of the types of situations she would get into and how she would act and react to them.
I found myself starting to ask, ‘would she really do that?’, ‘how would she handle this?’, ‘does that even make sense for her?’.
My characters were becoming real.
It was so exciting to see my main character develop into a real person not just a character that I was writing a story about. She was someone that I knew readers would be able to relate to, know, understand and get a clear sense of who she was. Why? Because I did.
So then I decided to interview my antagonist. Wow, did that open my eyes. It gave me a whole new perspective as to who this character was, why they were important, what their ultimate goal was, what brought them to this point and what they really wanted and what they would do to make it happen.
The ultimate goal as writer is to have readers react to your characters – relate to them, love them or hate them.
Think about this:
Have you ever been in a situation where someone has gotten made at you and blasted you about being incompetent or something? You might think, what a jerk. Then you learn that the person has just lost their wife or they may have lost their job or their child is really sick… When you understand why someone acts the way they do, it helps you to see them in a whole new light. It helps you to understand why they are acting the way they are. Once you know the reason, whether it is something current happening or something from their past, then you feel more compassionate towards them and more accepting of their behavior. You probably would act differently towards them. You have made them more human and you will respond nicer than if you don’t have an idea of why they are being so nasty.
The same goes for writing believable characters.
As a writer, if you understand them and what has made them the way they are the more you are able to convey that in your writing. You will show the reader who this person is and in doing that you will connect the reader; they will either like the character or dislike the character.
The ultimate goal of writing a compelling story is that your reader cares enough about who you’re writing about to want to know what is going to happen to them and cheer them on or hope they lose.
“If your character is believable, your reader will love them or dislike them.”
Know more than you write about.
I often get a lot of compliments on my stories – how much someone like someone or how much they hated this character, or they could totally relate to what my character was doing… Those kind of reactions from readers tell me that the people I have written about are real to them. That to me is the ultimate goal as a writer.
When I say interview my characters, I do a more indepth one for my protagonist and antagonist then I do for my other characters. What this does is give me a really clear idea about who I’m writing about. It helps me to make the character consistent or if they are doing something way out of character, like Sheila that I mentioned at the beginning, going from housewife to sky diver. I get her motivation and can bring that to the story. With answering some or all of the questions in my interviews, I know a whole lot more than I write about. I know the back story of all of my characters and who, how and why they are part of my story.
Here are some of the things that I want to know about my main characters:
- Setting and Era
- Personality – introvert, extrovert, partier, quiet, friendly, cold, outgoing, funny, phony, nosy, like people, hate people, etc.
- Future Plans
- Physical characteristics – sex, hair (color, length, style), height, weight, race, other (disability? wings? Superhuman abilities? Non-human? Animal? Species?)
- Future Plans
- Abilities/physicality: athletic, musical, clumsy, ambidextrous, flexible, arthritic, etc.
- Future Plans
- Where living – place and space
- Future Plans – where want to live
- Family/home life – growing up
- Where born
- Where grew up
- Relationship with family
- Future – what kind of relationship does s/he want with them
- Relationship status – single, married, divorced, separated, preference (same sex/opposite/other i.e. species); length of relationship
- Future – what wants
Get a good idea about who you’re writing about. It truly will change how you write your story.
Why you need to know your characters
is so that your readers feel like they do too!