Thinking Outside the Character Sheet

I don't know about you, but sometimes I struggle with characterization. Characters don't talk to me, they don't pop into my head fully-formed. I have to work at uncovering who they are and finding what makes them unique.

I have used those massive 'Get to Know Your Character' question sheets, but I find many can be a bit generic and aren't always enough for me to brainstorm the qualities of a Stand Out Character.

Flaws, quirks, mannerisms, interests, obsessions, fears and secrets are often what sets a character apart. I have a few techniques that I've used that help me 'think outside' the interview sheet when a character is being particularly stubborn about revealing themselves to me. If you're like me and need a bit of a push to unearth that special spark of uniqueness, try one of these exercises:

Be a Snoop


Invade their personal space and list out the contents of something private and personalized: a wallet, purse, locker, work desk, car, bedroom vanity, backpack, pseudo sock drawer. What objects/keepsakes/personal items do they keep on hand? Make it your mission to discover one or two things you didn't expect to find there but do, and think about why they have it and what it means. Creative thinking will lead to new facets of their character you might not have expected.

Speed Date

You've seen it on TV, maybe even tried it yourself. Set a timer for 5 minutes and ask your character as many questions you can. Make it your goal to discover something unusual about them--a secret, fear, an interest, a phobia. Go beyond "What's your favorite color?" and thick them in the hot seat. Pay attention to the questions that they try to avoid or are discomforted by.

Play a game of Would You Rather...

Would you rather...chew gum off the sidewalk or eat a worm? Would you rather...be paid $1000 to fire a single parent or have to pay the police $2000 for a traffic violation? This is a great, quick game that will test your character's moral center and expose those phobias and dislikes, and also tell you whether they are attention getters, risk takers or quiet observers.

Good Cop/Bad Cop

Pretend your character was in the vicinity to a crime (murder, robbery, car jacking, graffiti...you choose) and hit them with a split personality interview--good cop, bad cop. Is your character a bystander or guilty? You decide. Watch them squirm, grow frustrated or lie with ease. This is a great exercise to put them in the pressure cooker to judge emotional range and reactions.

Do you have any special techniques to bring out the interesting traits of your character? I'd love it if you shared them as I'm always looking for new ideas to strengthen my ability to connect with my characters and understand who they are.

31 comments:

Travis Erwin said...

Great tips, but my trouble lies in plotting. Guess I'm lucky to have characters speak to me. now if they'd just tell me what happens to them.

Laura Pauling said...

Great ideas. Like you, character sheets never do much for me. I find that as I write the character reveals him/herself. I try and start with issues of the heart and his/her motivations and go from there.

Southpaw said...

I ask them to describe their parents. You can tell a lot about someone by how they think of their parents. I also ask what was their favorite vacation and what did they do.

Anna said...

I love the idea of doing a speed date with your character! Thanks for the great suggestions.

April said...

Ooo, thank you for that. Those are some great ideas for getting inside my characters' heads and hearts and souls, really. To understand them better. Thanks so much! I'm definitely going to be using some of your ideas. I mostly just brainstorm. I jot down ideas whenever they come to me, thoughts, whether while I'm writing or before I start writing. It's worked so far, but your ideas are interesting and might bring the reading experience to a deeper level.

Kelly said...

Great tips! I'm trying to develop my mc more and used the questionnaire. I like your suggestions too!

Jamie Grey said...

Great post - I have this problem myself (and am dealing with it in my WIP). I've tried the "character interview" which sort of helped, but I'm still not feeling connected. I think the thing that helped me most was writing a scene from the MC's life before my story starts to see what their day-to-day life looks like before all the crazy stuff happens. But I'm always looking for better ways to connect! Thanks for the post!

Angela Ackerman said...

Travis, I plan on posting on Plot in the near future, so I hope it helps you. Plotting is my strength, so if you have any specific hardships you'd like me to address, please let me know. :)

Laura, I think the CS are good for a 'baseline' but I find it doesn't help me shape them as much as I need them to. Like you say, it's about understanding what motivates them more so that a lits of likes and dislikes.

Southpaw, that's a good idea, because so much can be revealed by what the character chooses to say and how they say it. We all have parent issues!

April, I'm a big brainstormer too.:)

Anna and Kelly, glad the suggestions help. :)

Jamie, I am so glad you brought this up, because this can be an excellent way to also bring about 'voice'. I use this often as a methods to get into the person's head and understand where they are at emotionally and mentally in the events leading up to the opening scene. :)

Great feedback guys! Keep it coming!

Angela

Posey said...

This is great, because not only do they seem like good ideas they sound like fun! :)

Heather said...

Love these tips! Sometimes I get lucky and a character pops into my head fully formed, flaws and all. Other times, like you, I have to do some snooping to figure them out. Thanks for the great ideas, I'll be using some of these!

Deb said...

This is great, Angela. I will sometimes spend the day in the shoes-but the character is in my shoes. If she were on the computer what would she be looking up? At the library what would she be picking up, how would she go about cleaning up, what would she thinking of first thing in the morning...if any of that makes sense.

Stina had this link as part of her Cool Link Friday, to do with character motivation.

http://elanajohnson.blogspot.com/2010/06/determining-character-motivation.html

Quite liked it.

Melissa Gill said...

Good stuff Angela. I'm getting ready to start this process with my new WIP. I'll use all these great ideas.

Merc said...

Great ideas, Angela!

I tend to be fond of 'gun to the head' method of figuring out characters. If I threatened to kill them or hurt them, how do they react and why? How does it change if the threat is changed?

O:)

(I admit this method is also just FUN... but you can probably figure out that would be something I'd like.)

~Merc

Terri said...

Excellent tips! I love the spilling out the purse or wallet and seeing what's inside! I talk to my characters sometimes on my blog. This is something I've only begun doing in the last couple of months. They tell me things, I tell them things, they talk to each other. The actual dialogue doesn't appear in the ms, but it helps me figure out what makes them tick and what directions they feel they need to travel!
I am revisiting another character now, and I'm going to try the wallet thing. Actually, I think I'll make it a messy desk drawer. No telling what might pop out!

Lindsay (a.k.a Isabella) said...

Great tips.
For my characters I listen to music. I make playlists of songs that may fit my characters. I don't know why it works for me but it does. :)

Andrea said...

Great ideas, Angela. I don't usually have characters talk to me either, though lately I've been hearing how their voices sound when I write dialogue. Does the fact that they just emerge mean that they are all too much like me, I wonder?

I try to think of a unique hobby or interest that my character has that sets them apart from others.

Karen Lange said...

Good stuff, thanks so much. May have to bookmark this page. Your blog has this way of making me do that:)

Amy Branen said...

Love the post. You're so endlessly creative. I spend a lot of time developing my characters because character development is a major part in all my stories. As I go through my day, I ask myself how each character would respond to the everyday hassles I go through, like getting the wrong order in a restaurant or being cut off in traffic. I had a crazy woman jump in my car the other day and ask me tons of odd questions as I drove her home, eg. would I clean her house. I've gotten lots of ideas for lines that way.

Adventures in Children's Publishing said...

Angela, you always have the best ideas. I totally agree- the standard character sheet can sometimes fall flat. I love the idea of "invading their space." It really is a discovery process. Like it or not, we're linking you up for Friday's blog round-up! :) Awesome advice here!

Marissa

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I love the exercises in GETTING INTO CHARACTER: 7 SECRETS A NOVELIST CAN LEARN FROM ACTORS. It's definitely work, but I know my characters better from doing those exercises than just by filling in questionnaires (which I still do). :D

(ps our library has it. That's where I accidentally discovered it.)

Lydia Kang said...

These are all great ideas! I need to flesh out my new characters soon (okay, after my WIP is done with the latest revision...grrrr).
Nice blog!

Wendy Marcus said...

Great ideas as usual, Angela! Thanks

Deb Salisbury said...

Great post! Character sheets haven't worked for me. I'll give your tips a try. Thanks!

Susanne Drazic said...

Great tips! I "talk" to my characters. I have some of those character sheets that I use. : )

Claire Dawn said...

I recently read somewhere (I forget where) that sometimes filling out character sheets can be a bit like those emailes with "50 fun facts" about your friends. The truth is most of us don't know whether our bff prefers pumpkin or papaya. And it's only relevant when they have to eat one or the other. It doesn't affect anything else.

I think something that;s important to consider is the things that will affect the book. For example, if your main setting is a restaurant, then pumpkin/papaya and other food issues become extremely important. If your MS is about a soccer tournament, probably doesn't matter that much.

To that end I think character sheets should be tailor made. Major stuff like motivations, conflicts, physical descriptions, things from the past that still hang over them (like a nasty divorce) and a few tidbits, that you can work in for depth.

Erica Chapman said...

Ooo these are good. I do the interview thing sometimes. Haven't tried the "Would you rather," thing, sounds like it would work well... don't have anything to add as this is NOT my expertise... ;o)

Thanks for sharing!

Lisa and Laura said...

We play around with their appearance first--searching for pics of celebrities who might look like them, listing physical characteristics, etc. I feel like once we get a handle on how they look, the rest is a bit easier.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

I don't have anything special I do...I scramble up people I know with other people I know or from history and make them into new people. :)

Angela, I have an award for you over at my blog. :)

PJ Hoover said...

These are great suggestions, Angela. And so useful right now for me!

Beverley BevenFlorez said...

Fantastic tips. Thanks!

Mary Witzl said...

I'm like Travis: my main problem is with plotting. I feel like I know my characters pretty well.

Now that I've quit work, they're with me all day long: nagging away, talking non stop; sitting in corners, brooding; frowning, hands on hips; scrunching up their mouths as they observe my actions and responses, judging my every move. It's a little sick, but there it is.

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