Become Your Character

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If you worry that the characters in your novel seem one dimensional or that they all look and sound alike, then I have a question for you. How well do you know them? I mean really know them, inside and out? Particularly your lead character? 

A good way to figure that out is by examining the character’s dialog and how comfortable you feel when writing it. If you struggle with writing dialogue for the character that’s a sure sign that you don’t know her or him very well. You should know instinctively what the character would say in everyday circumstances and even some unusual ones. 

Long ago and far away, there was a TV show called Queen for a Day. Several women would get asked probing questions about their lives, and the studio audience would ring an applause meter based on the responses. Usually the contestant who'd had the toughest life got the most applause and won. She would became Queen for a Day and win all sorts of grand prizes.

I’m going to suggest that you become your lead characters for a day, a week, or several weeks. Whatever it takes to get to know them, inside and out. When you leave the house--whether to run errands, go shopping or attend church--pretend you are your character. Ask yourself, what would “Denise” or "David" do in this situation? Now I’m not suggesting that you curse out the salesclerk behind the counter if that’s what your character would do, but you should make a mental note to yourself.

I did this with my novels, especially with the first one, Sisters and Lovers. That novel had three lead characters and I spent several weeks pretending to be each one both before writing the novel and during. Charmaine was the character least like me in personality yet she was my favorite to act out because I got to be sassy and smart talking for a few weeks. At least in my head.

Another good way to get into your characters is to interview them. Pretend you’re a columnist for a lifestyle magazine and ask questions—superficial, fun questions as well as deep, probing ones. Over the years, I have developed and perfected a questionnaire with meaningful questions that really help me get to know my characters, warts and all.

Some examples from the questionnaire:

  • What do you do when you lose your temper?
  • How important is your faith to you?
  • What are you most ashamed of?
  • Do you enjoy sex?
  • Are you an introvert or extrovert and how does that impact your behavior?

You could probably answer these questions about yourself if you thought about it. You should be able to answer them for your characters too.

The character questionnaire is one of many worksheets and handouts in my online character development course, Craft Your Characters. You can get more information about it by going here.