How to Get Your Characters to Tell You Who They Really Are! by Drew Carson

Screen shot 2013-05-04 at 8.54.47 PM

Sometimes your characters just seem fake. You’ve heard the term–cardboard cutout. It means that they’re totally predictable and non-intriguing. They’re flat. Stale. Overused.

So how do you get them to shine?

You make ‘em talk, that’s what.

This is a common exercise in the world of writers, and it works for the most part because you’re literally getting to know your character. But many times your character will feed you lies and you won’t even realize it – little clichés that have entwined themselves with the person’s story.

What I’m suggesting is that you should talk to them differently. Be forceful. Interrogate them. Twist, exaggerate, justify, and repeat.

THE PROCESS

When you first have an idea for a character, it’s pretty vague. You have the basics – their career, what they need to do in the story, maybe even a few awkward family/friend relations. But you don’t really know them, just like you don’t really know the person you met at the grocery store. They’re just a shadow with a few form-details.

To get that sense of uniqueness, start with a twist:

Who are you, Jimmy?

I’m the paper-boy for my neighborhood!  Ju – just the p-paper boy! I ride my bike every day around –

You’re lying. I know something’s up, Jimmy, and we’ll talk until you spill your guts.

No, really, I’m telling the truth!

Oh? Would Mr. Mason say so?

I – how – Where is he?

Answer the question.

…What will you do to me?

Screen shot 2013-05-04 at 8.51.07 PM

This is your first and only chance to cooperate before I let the other guys in here. And I can’t guarantee that you’ll like what they have to say.

…I – I don’t know how it happened. We were just riding down Main when these guys jumped us and stole our bikes. We chased them into the woods, all the way to the middle… They had a lab going on out there. It was the freakiest thing I’d ever seen. They threatened us. I swear, they were going to kill us. But then Mason offered to sell their drugs. I didn’t have anything to do with it, but they wouldn’t let me go until I agreed. It wasn’t my fault –

What happened after that?

They said they’d keep a watch on us. They gave us envelopes filled with the stuff – we delivered them to a list of addresses.

This is obviously a radical example, and very literally an interrogation, but you can modify it to fit any scenario. Play the part of a friend, coaxing gossip out of a teenage girl just to see if she’s the type of person to bend. Make something unexpected happen in your character’s personality.

Next, exaggerate an aspect of your character. Maybe it’s an admirable trait. Maybe it’s an obsession. We like to read about larger-than-life characters who do things that normal people wouldn’t dare:

Why did you choose to get involved?

I told you, it wasn’t my choice.

Allow me to clarify. Why did you run after the thugs who you knew to be dangerous?

I can’t stand bullies. They make me so angry. When they took off with our bikes, something snapped and I just couldn’t let them get away. Don’t know what I was thinking – there were so many of ‘em. But it didn’t matter. They were bullying, and I wasn’t gonna let that happen.

There. Now we have a Jimmy who is strongly opposed to bullies. This is something that readers will latch on to. In the future, if a new bully enters the story, they’ll be expecting him to do something about it.  This sort of thing, aside from defining your character, will give prime opportunities for him/her to screw up. For example, what if a guy walks up and gives Jimmy a playful punch? Will he misunderstand, and fight back? Or will he be able to differentiate between real and pretend aggressiveness?

This could depend on how exaggerated your character’s trait is. And that will depend on how the trait developed. So, naturally, it’s time to justify:

Sounds like you have a problem with bullies. How’s the life at home?

Screen shot 2013-05-04 at 8.51.52 PM

Photo courtesy of Morguefile.com

Well, it’s okay. Mom’s working two jobs. Dad’s in prison. So the only other people in my house besides me are my older brother and sister.

I see. Are they ever aggressive?

Not physically, no. But they always throw parties in the basement, and their friends can be real jerks. When I ask them not to invite those people, they make fun of me. They tell me I have no friends.

And what do you do about that?

Well, my brother would kill me if I got in the way of their fun. So I usually leave the house or stay up in my room.  It’s hard to just walk away – it’s like trying to tame a rhino, or something.

After going through this process once, Jimmy is a much more interesting character than just a paper-boy. He’s got a trait that readers will sympathize with, and a way to back it up. In no way is he a complete character, but he will be, once you repeat. Pick an aspect of Jimmy’s story that seems a little too cliché or boring. Maybe it’s the part where he says one parent’s in prison and the other is always gone. That’s a pretty popular scenario. Go through the process again, focusing on that issue. See how you can make things even more interesting.

Remember that nobody is one-hundred percent unique, so at some point it is okay to stop twisting and exaggerating. You will know that you’ve done enough when you feel a burning excitement for your character and their struggles.

HAVE YOU EVER INTERROGATED YOUR CHARACTERS? WHAT SECRET HAVE THEY TOLD YOU?

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address:



Comments

  1. Drew, you have an interesting process for developing characters. I may try this process with some of my minor characters, but I feel like it would be way too stressful for me to use too often. Interrogations are not my style. 😉 I prefer the “Good Will Hunting” method (eh, don’t recommend watching it unless it’s on TV) where you sit the character down and allow silence until the character decides to start talking. Thanks for the post!

    • Hi Lauren-
      Thanks for commenting here. Really? The silent method? How do you know if your character is lying then? Or does this silent treatment make them so uncomfortable they have to confess all? Ha!
      M

      • Haha, maybe I should have explained my Good Will Hunting analogy better. In that movie, the main character is told to report to a psychiatrist for therapy I believe once a week. For the first meeting, the main character informs the Therapist that the Therapist cannot make him speak. The Therapist implies that’s fine, and they spend the entire hour in silence. During the next meeting, the character decides to start talking about little things…and slowly the two begin to learn about each other.
        That’s what I meant by the silent method.

    • Drew Carson says:

      Hey Lauren –
      Like I said, it doesn’t HAVE to be a literal interrogation. Mine was just a radical example. What I was trying to convey is that you shouldn’t always take the first answer your characters give you, because they will try and use clichés. If your silence method works to accomplish the same goal, that’s great! Just beware of lies, because they do crop up now and again.

  2. Tabitha says:

    I like this idea pretty well, if you need to do this to figure things out about your charries. I have two different methods to do it though, one is to play scenes from my novel over and over again in my head, and that way I can get exactly what their character is, and how they talk, if they like to talk quetly or loudly, etc, etc.
    The other one is to talk to my two older sisters, they have the best ideas for characters.
    After I have done these two things, my charries are developed enough, and i don’t need to interview them. *nods*

    • Hi Tabitha–You’re lucky you have sisters–and TWO of them–to brainstorm with. My family rolls their eyes if I talk about my characters. Thankfully I have a group of writer friends who meet every week to discuss and brainstorm. I love that part of writing–the creating part. Don’t you?
      Hope you have a productive day!
      Michelle

Please share your random thoughts.

*

Thank you for stopping by!