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Why You Need to Get to Know Your Characters

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

Before coming to me, one of my clients took the plunge and sent a query letter to a literary agency along with the first draft of her novel that she had been working on for almost a decade. She thought she would have an easy time getting published, as the agent was a friend.

Months went by, and she heard nothing.

Finally, when she received the much-anticipated feedback, she was not exactly thrilled (but not at all surprised) to learn that her friend’s main complaint was that she had spent hundreds of pages with the character but still had no idea who she was. The manuscript was sent back, and my client was advised to continue working on the character’s development until she knew her inside out.

Getting to know your characters is one of the most crucial steps of story development and writing a book. It doesn’t matter if it’s the protagonist or a tertiary character; knowing what motivates each person to get out of bed in the morning is the only way your reader will want to spend any time with them.

What happens when you try to write a story with characters that you don’t really know?

The Wooden Character

Ever read a book (or watch a movie) where a character seems so clichéd or unnatural? That might be a sign that a character is wooden. There’s no life or depth involved. This character is too simple, too one-dimensional. Boring. Don’t get me a wrong; there’s nothing wrong with a boring character if it’s an intentional trait. There are plenty of protagonists that start as ordinary, run-of-the-mill Joe Blows before they embark on their hero’s journey (Joyce’s Leopold Bloom comes to mind). But if the reader is bored reading about it, there’s a chance the writer hasn’t done their job.

The Emotional Wreck

Oftentimes, writers replace character traits with a flying circus of emotions. These characters might overreact over the smallest things. They will feel very strongly about someone or something without any apparent or explained reason. While having an emotive protagonist is excellent, it’s also unrealistic to make them happy, angry, aroused, sad, and nervous all in one scene. If you think about people in real life, you realize that there’s so much more to a person than how they feel. Not everyone lets their emotions run the show. Some people use their intellect. Some people don’t seem to show any emotion at all but are deeply sensitive under the surface.

What happens when you don’t know your character is that you fill the gaps with extreme reactions to keep the story moving. Reading about your character’s constant gasps or sobs or cries of laughter or tears of joy can be volatile, tiring, and hard to take. If your character is supposed to be that emotional and high strung, the reader has to understand why, which brings me to my next point.

The Character No One Cares About

Probably the worst consequence of not knowing your character inside out is that your readers just won’t care what happens to them. If you don’t want to invest the time and effort into creating deep characters, why should your readers care about them? The result is a story that isn’t interesting.

Is There a Way to Get to Know Your Characters?

The reason I say you should get to know the people you’re writing about is that their mannerisms, traits, and personalities will help build their path through the story in a way that is believable and magical. Once these creatures are fully formed sentient beings, they’ll tell you exactly how they’re supposed to navigate their way through the world.

Getting to know your characters takes practice and a bit of fairy dust. Sometimes, you can just wake up one day with a perfect picture in your mind of the protagonist’s love interest. You can almost see them in front of you. Even the little things are obvious: They have dirt under their fingernails. They sleep on their stomach. They drink coffee with a lot of sugar and don’t stop chugging caffeine until it’s time to switch to beer. They’re harbouring a secret that only the two of you will ever know.

There are many exercises you can do to fill in the gaps of your characters, both in their physical and non-physical traits. Many of these quirks or memories or likes or dislikes may never make it to your story, but imagine how colourful and vibrant your novel will be when you (and the reader) get to follow them on their journey.

If developing strong, well-rounded, multi-dimensional characters is one of your writing challenges, I'm here to help. I invite you to look at my packages to find the best one that suits your writing needs, or shoot me a message!