Getting to know a character BEFORE you start the book

Writing comes easiest to me (and probably to you too) when I know my main character very, very well. The entire book is her reacting to things and choosing to buy a chocolate ice cream or a vanilla ice cream and I’d rather know her well enough to immediately be able to write in a chocolate ice cream cone with rainbow sprinkles, rather than spending the next twenty minutes of my writing time debating the likelihood of her choosing either.

And, you know, maybe she hates ice cream.

One of the reasons it’s usually pretty difficult for me to start a book, or why the beginning part of a book is usually the section I end up rewriting the most, is because I know my character the least at the beginning of the book.

Writing the whole book is the best way to get to know your character. That’s obvious.

But it can save a lot of time and confusion to try to get your character together before you start. So here are some easy ways to figure out that awesome person before their book materializes.

1. Plot out the book beforehand.

This only works for people who LIKE to plot out books beforehand (some people can write entire books off the cuff and those people are amazing) but there’s also a benefit to plotting that I don’t usually see discussed. Plotting out the book makes you think in advance about your character’s decisions – the kind of choices she’ll be making, how she’ll deal with the consequences – and that’s a great way to start to learn who that person is.

2. Make a character cheat sheet.

I want to say this one with a grain of salt, because I’ve had times when I got so involved with making the most convoluted character sheet (does she have highlights in her hair? did her great aunt twice removed once bake her cookies when she was five?) that it actually distracted me from the most important thing – to get at the essence of the character. Don’t write down details unless they’re important to the core of the character’s being. Don’t write down eye color. Write down the main emotions that rule her (guilt? anger? why?). Write down what she cares about most and how she generally treats other people and what she wants more than anything. (Or he.) Don’t make it longer than a page. Use this to get the blunt centerpieces of the character’s heart down on paper. Knowing someone’s height and weight doesn’t help you know their personality any better.

3. Writing prompts.

Writing prompts drive me crazy sometimes, but you can use them for short exercises that help you get to know your character better before you dive into the book. Spend only 15 minutes on each. Start writing and don’t stop! You can also end up using these in your book.

A. Character introduction exercise. Write a paragraph about your character but do it in the third person, from the perspective of someone just meeting your character. See if you can come up with a line that really gets them. How do they come across to other people? What is it about them that stands out?

B. Character introduction exercise part 2. Write a single sentence about your character but let it run on and on, a page or more, and describe who that character is. Sort of like stream-of-consciousness.

C. Write an important scene from your character’s backstory – one that you weren’t already planning to include in the book.

D. Write a scene where your main character talks to someone about something they’ve never talked about before.

E. Write a scene involving your main character from another character’s POV.

If you spend 15 minutes each on all of these, that’s an hour and fifteen minutes of writing that will make your character a LOT clearer to you. I used these when I was having a ridiculous amount of trouble figuring out a main character, and it worked.

Of course, your character will change throughout the course of your book and during revisions. But having some idea of who he/she is before you start writing can make the book a lot easier to start.

Good luck!

This entry was posted in Characters, Writing Advice, Writing Exercises and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Getting to know a character BEFORE you start the book

  1. postgradya says:

    This will really help me with part two of my short story.^^ Thanks.

  2. Laura Tims says:

    You're welcome! Thanks so much!

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