Getting to know your characters through a character diary

beauty-354570_640There are at least as many different ways to create believable, interesting characters your readers can care about as there are good writers. In fact, after all the time I’ve spent running around looking for resources on character creation in the last couple of weeks, I suspect there might actually be more character creation and development exercises than there are writers–quality or otherwise.

One of my favourite ways to get intimately familiar with my characters is to create a character diary for them.

Here’s how it works:

Every day for a specified period of time–whether it’s a week, a month, or just until Nanowrimo starts–you write one page describing a normal day in your character’s life. This should be at some point shortly before your story begins, so you know you’re getting in touch with the character voice you’ll be using during Nanowrimo.

Pay special attention to how your character writes their journal. Is it simply a recording of the day’s events, or is the character trying to work through some kind of trauma? Do they just recite the facts, or do they embellish and go off on tangents?

How your character journals will tell you just as much about them as knowing what their daily routines are.

Have you ever written a character diary before? Why/why not?

Diving into your character’s mind

Hopefully by now you have a fairly solid main character to work with if nothing else. You want to know that character as well as you possibly can before you start writing your actual novel.

This is particularly important if all you have is a character, because an entire novel can spring up naturally around a good character you know well. Their family, friends and lovers can become characters and their lives can become plots. You can either discover a period of their life worth writing about, or you can learn how they react to things and throw them an entirely new challenge that will test their strengths.

Every writer uses different techniques to get into their character’s minds. Some use character interviews, others create detailed character charts. Some even dress up as their characters and walk around like them for a day.

My favourite method of getting to know a character is to choose an important moment in the character’s life and write about it in their first person PoV. I usually end up writing my entire novel in first person, so this is particularly productive for me, but even if you’re going to spend November writing in third person it can be useful to see through their eyes for a couple scenes. Knowing how your character sees the world is incredibly useful and more importantly, knowing how they respond to trauma can help you write the most tense scenes in your plot.

By choosing the right moment, you can also learn about their family, friends, loved ones and even their culture as a whole. And as I mentioned last week, if you explore a good character deeply enough, you’ll always find a story worth telling.

If you don’t know much about your character or their culture and you’re having trouble choosing a moment, pick from this list of things most people will experience in their lifetime:

  • Becoming an adult
  • Someone’s funeral
  • Someone’s wedding
  • Leaving their hometown for the first time

Describe the day in as much detail as possible, focusing on how your character sees the world, how they feel and how they react to the world around them. If you’re comfortable sharing, tell me what moment in your character’s life you chose in the comments below.

Character Creation

You might have already gotten a few ideas for characters during your brainstorming last week. Or you might be scrambling to figure out who might fit into the plot you’ve been trying to plan. Whether you’ve got a host of characters and are trying to figure out who will be your main character or you’re just starting to delve into character, there are a few simple questions you can ask yourself to create the best characters to match your story and your world.

But first, a warning. The best characters take on a life of your own, and will do unexpected things, occasionally drastically changing your plot. This can happen even in later drafts. If this starts happening–or you realize during this line of question that the person you thought to be your MC is actually just a sidekick–go with it. Don’t fight it; fighting the wish of the characters will only make your story fall flat.

Consider yourself warned. Now on to the questions!

1. Who has the most to lose in the scenario I’ve created and why? The reason you ask yourself this is to find your main character. The best main character is generally the one who has the strongest need and is willing to go the furthest to get it. Figure out who this is, and you’ve got your MC. If there are two characters with opposing but equally strong needs in relation to the story, you’ve got both your MC and your villain. See how easy that was?

2. What is this character’s prized possession? This is good to know because it adds depth. Sometimes you learn more than just what the object is when you ask this question. For example, my female MC Valtessa’s most prized possession is actually a hand-carved family of soapstone elephants given to her by her mother. By figuring that out I learned both that elephants do exist on her world–although nowhere near her–and that in spite of locking her up when she was a child, her guardians let her keep something to remind her of her mother. Often, even if you know nothing of your world yet except as it pertains to the story, you’ll learn more about it when you ask this question.

3. Has this character ever been in love before? This question will give you some background on the character. If they haven’t, find out why–maybe they’re from a religious order where love is a sin, or maybe they’ve never really been exposed to other people. Of course, they might just be incredibly cold and have difficulty with their emotions, both having and understanding them. If they have been in love, try to find out with whom, when, and what happened. You might discover there’s another character–a lover, lost or recent–waiting in the wings.

4. What does this character think of themselves? This is an important question. Everyone’s always telling you how important your self esteem is, so why wouldn’t your character’s be, too? You’ll probably figure out a lot more about this when you get into the world and figure out how they fit into society in terms of class, religion and gender roles. For now you’re just looking for a basic answer–do they like themselves or hate themselves? Perhaps they like their talents or their personality, but hate their body. Figure out how they feel about themselves, and you’ll have lots of fodder for introspection and an easy way to create a character arc.

These questions should help you figure out a little bit about the characters you’re creating and give you an idea who your main character should be this November. Over the course of this week we’ll discuss character arcs in more detail and go over a couple exercises designed to help you figure out more about your characters.

What questions do you like to ask your characters?