Getting To Know Your Characters

When character charts don’t work
How to keep track of your characters? One possibility is to use character charts. Search engines give countless sites that offer lists of questions to help build a solid character, ranging from a concise collection of 20 questions up to eight pages of questions.

Unfortunately, I find character charts too static. When I first decided to fill one out I soon ran out of juice– it felt like I was filing a police report. The character didn’t live at all, nor could I relate to it and in the end the character never made it into any story – so far.

I did need a way to write the information about my characters down, though, and the questions the charts provided were useful. But since filing wasn’t much of an option for me, I looked for a different solution.

A picture says more than a 1000 words
What works for me is visualizing the character, and when necessary the situation or environment a character is in. So, instead of describing characters’ appearances in charts, I draw them. (They don’t have to be master pieces, as long as you recognize your own characters.) Another way to visualize characters, but which requires more time, is using suitable photos, for example on the web and in magazines.

Visualizing helps turning foggy character descriptions and tangled situations into clear shots. Seeing what you want your readers to experience prevents you from describing situations in which your characters are bending in ways that will leave even the keenest players of Twister in awe.

And just think of all those lovely holiday pics stored on your computer (or old-fashioned photo albums). They just proved to be multifunctional and not just for the annual slide show.

Storyboard
But pictures only won’t do the trick either. Certain information is very hard, if not impossible, to express in pictures. In the end the best way for me to keep on top of my characters is by making a combination of visualization and textual notes – similar to the storyboards used for making films.

Whenever working on a story in which the character’s details are too complex to remember by heart, I write a concise story about the character’s important details adding photos or drawings. For one particular character I’ve written out the details of her past, her mother’s boyfriends, made drawings of her house and added photos of her brother’s house and garden. It reads like a story with visuals to clarify certain bits of information.

Know the character
In the end it doesn’t matter what technique is used. What matters is that as the writer you are and stay on top of your characters. If the writer doesn’t really know the character, you can’t expect the reader to.

Cecile

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