How well should you know your characters?

So, Patricia C. Wrede had a great post yesterday: Worksheets

It’s about those lovely character worksheets that people use to know their characters.  Like you’re somehow incapable of writing about a character unless you know their favorite food and color.

This is where PCW comes out on the issue:

“Which brings me back around to those character worksheets. For me, they’re pretty much useless; I need to know my characters, not just know things about them, and in order to know them, I have to write them. For other writers, worksheets may well be a lot more useful, especially if one views them as a memory-jogging tool rather than a form to fill out.”

Personally, I think you can know a lot of facts about a person and have absolutely no ability to tell that person’s story.  And to me that’s what writing is actually about.

Showing just how old I am (and potentially revealing bad musical taste to some of you), this reminds me of a song by Ty Herndon.  It’s called What Mattered Most.  Basically the whole song is how the guy knew all sorts of facts about the woman he loved, but he didn’t really know anything about what mattered and that’s why she left him.

(Or at least that’s what I think the song is about.  It wouldn’t be the first time somebody heard something completely different in a song than what it was about.  Like a friend of mine who thought a song about killing an abusive husband was a great college level summer anthem.  But I digress.)

I think it’s useful for characters to have traits.  And I’ve definitely seen that type of advice out there.  I just don’t know that it needs to be so…calculated.

I have a character in my novel who is a twelve-year-old boy who spends a lot of time hanging out in the kitchen, so he’s a bit obsessive about food.  Especially after he ends up traveling with a man who thinks that dried out tasteless travel bars are perfectly acceptable for every meal.

I didn’t plot that out in advance.  I didn’t sit down and think “Now, what is his favorite food?  And how can I show that in the novel?”  The first scene I wrote he happened to be helping out in the kitchen, so food mattered.  And it turns out to provide a nice contrast when he starts traveling with travel bar guy.  And the food thing serves a purpose in the novel.

(I’m bordering on doing a literary analysis of my own novel which is about as pretentious as you can get, so I’m going to stop that now.  Especially since it’s unpublished drivel that may never be read by more than ten people.)

(And no, I don’t really believe it’s drivel.  But it is unpublished and likely to be that way for a while.)

Back to the point.  As with most of this “advice” on writing, I think you should use it when you need it.  So, if you write a book and people tell you that your characters fall flat.  Or weren’t believable.  Or all blend together.  If no one can understand what motivates your characters.  If you keep getting questions from your betas about why someone did that in that moment.  Then, perhaps, you need to sit down and get to know your characters.  (Or you need to do a better job of showing what you know in the novel itself.)

Personally, I wouldn’t do it before you start writing.  Which is not to say that I didn’t know something about my characters before I started writing.  Or that PCW didn’t know something about hers.  (See her post.)

But it’s more that I’ve-met-you-and-had-a-basic-conversation-with-you type of knowing than the I-did-a-detailed-personality-study-of-you-and-know-that-you’re-an-INTP-with-an-IQ-of-124-and-a-size-10-shoe type.

And I think it is useful, after the fact, to list everything you know about your characters.  When I read the last draft of my novel I created a page for every single character.  When something was said about them I noted what was said and what page it was said on.  That helps with those consistency issues.  (Blue eyes vs. brown, no siblings vs. having a brother)  And, if you ever want to write about your characters again, it lets you have a nice cheat sheet.

It also lets you see if two characters have similar physical tics or traits and then lets you strengthen that or eliminate it depending on what it does for the story.

At the end of the day you have to do what works for you.  If it doesn’t feel natural to sit down and fill out a detailed survey of your characters, then don’t do it.  Just write.


About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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2 Responses to How well should you know your characters?

  1. Keri Peardon says:

    Yeah, that does seem a bit obsessive–plotting out such tiny details in advance. For one thing, many of those details are never going to come out. In one complete and two almost-complete novels, my MC has never revealed her favorite color. It just doesn’t seem that important when people are dying (and others are trying to kill her). Or maybe, since she’s loosely based on me, she doesn’t really have a favorite color.

    This is going to sound hokey, but I let my characters tell me who they are as I write. I didn’t decide at the outset to make Anselm a somewhat anal neat-freak. It was just when Kalyn walked into his house the first time, she found it very neat and tidy. When she went into his garage, I thought it would be fun to describe it as obsessively organized. (This is projection on my part; I secretly wish my husband was like that!) Then I decided that Kalyn will be the same way, so they would have that in common. But I decided that Micah, Anselm’s brother, needed to be the opposite, because I liked the idea of having an Odd Couple who, by being opposites in just the right places, compliment each other perfectly.

    So, by coming up with the personality trait of one character, I actually set up the personalities of two more. And those traits give them a lot more points of interaction and relationship development than favorite colors. (You are so right that such superficial knowledge–while sometimes necessary–really doesn’t tell you anything about a person.)

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