I never claimed to be smart, which is probably why I’m preparing to start a new book.
I’m a pantster rather than a plotter, which means I typically have little idea where a story is headed when I dive in. One thing I do like to have before I start is a basic understanding of the characters. Who are they? What makes them tick? If we went out for drinks and the waiter said there was only one glass of Stoller 2008 JV Estate Pinot Noir left, who would win in a swordfight for it?
These are crucial things to determine, so here are a few tricks I’ve tried for getting to know new characters.
Job hunt. One of the first things I usually decide is what my characters do for a living. From there, I try to learn as much as I can about those professions. What’s her daily routine like? What schooling would he need to have? Does she go out for martini lunches or huddle in a corner of a dimly lit break room eating a peanut butter sandwich? Understanding what my characters spend most of their time doing is a big part of understanding what they’re like as people.
Roleplay. Sadly, this isn’t as kinky as it sounds. Grab a friend or critique partner, sit down with a cup of coffee, and pretend you’ve just met. Not only have you just met, but you are your character. Ask each other typical “get to know you” questions. Where did you grow up? What’s your family like? Do you prefer boxers or briefs? You won’t always have the answers in mind before you start, but giving fast, gut-level responses to questions like these can help get you into the mindset of an unfamiliar character.
Get crafty. Some authors make collages for books they’re beginning to write. It’s a practice I’ve long admired in theory, but have never pursued due to inherent laziness and a general lack of craftiness. Even so, I like the idea of having something visual to start my wheels turning, so I recently spent an hour browsing online for photos that matched my mental picture of my new characters. I printed out the pictures and pinned them on the bulletin board beside my desk. This comes with the added bonus of having them staring disdainfully down at me as I spend an hour dicking around on Damn You Autocorrect instead of working.
10 things no one knows. Sit down with a pen and paper and make a list of ten things about your character that few people know. These things don’t have to appear in the book – in fact, it’s sometimes best if they don’t – but they’re a good way to gain insight into the character’s inner self. Is he secretly afraid of the dark? Does she refuse to eat apricot jelly because it reminds her of that unfortunate incident with the jumper cables and the guy who insisted she call him Marsha? If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble over a few surprises as you go.
What do you do when you’re trying to get to know new characters? Do you prefer to become acquainted gradually as you ease into the story, or do you perform any sort of preliminary groundwork? Please share.
And don’t steal that apricot jelly thing. I think I’m onto something with that one.