It's All About Character

#writemotivationIt’s Monday, so it’s time for another #writemotivation goal update.  Last week, with hat in hand, I had to admit I had done nothing to make progress on my WIP.  Sigh… not a great start to the month.  So what’s the progress report for this past week?  It’s a weird one actually.

On the one hand, I didn’t even crack open my WIP document, so a purist could say I made no actual progress.  But with the character work I did this past week, I think I’ve made more progress on my WIP than I have since that frenzied NaNoWriMo month when I wrote the first draft years ago.  With the insight I gained into my characters, this past week will go a long way toward improving my novel.

I’ve always been a plot-driven writer, but with recent feedback, I realized the characters in my WIP were more cardboard-y than I thought.  So at the advice of a fabulous critique partner, I sat down to do some serious character homework before jumping into the rewrite.  I found one of those character worksheets online with tons of questions about appearance, mannerisms, likes, dislikes, etc., as well as the extra important goals, needs, wants, motivations questions.  In the past, I’ve dismissed these type of things as kind of silly – I mean I’m making up these people in my head, of course I know who they are, I don’t need exercises like interviews or POV diary entries to get to know them better.

However, as I started going through these questions for my five main characters, I realized I didn’t know them as well as I thought.  I knew them in the way I needed for the plot to work, but I didn’t know them well enough to make readers see them as three dimensional people because I didn’t even see them that way myself.

I sat there rolling my eyes at how ridiculous it was trying to come up with a favorite book for one of my characters when she was never going to be reading or even talking about books in the novel.  Just to fill in the blank, I typed out The Hunger Games because it’s a book most teen girls read.  But before I moved on, I wondered if she would actually even like the book.  All of the sudden it hit me – she would LOVE it.  She’s the type who considers herself cutthroat enough that she thinks she would easily win the Hunger Games and look fabulous while doing it.  So then I realized: it’s not about knowing your character’s favorite book, it’s about understanding WHY it would be your character’s favorite book.  Yeah, it took me a while, but I finally got there.  

After that, it was fun filling out the rest of the character worksheets.  It didn’t feel like homework anymore because it was no longer a chore to do just to say I did it, instead these characters were becoming real people in my head.  It wasn’t always easy, but as I went through figuring out the answers, I got to know things about my characters I never expected.  And I also discovered things that are going to make plot issues come together and make more sense than they do now, which is a very good thing.  So even if there was not any actual physical progress on the WIP this past week, I feel like I accomplished a lot.  So now this week I’ll be jumping in and figuring out how to get all this new insight onto the page.  

Do you use character questionnaires/worksheets before you start writing?  How do you get to know your characters in a way that makes them feel real?  How did your writing goals go this week? 


Anjali's picture

I have not done character worksheets in the past, but for my next novel, I'm going to do a ton more outlining/legwork. Those character worksheets look like a great idea, and I will certainly use them!

Jocelyn Rish's picture

They turned out to be a big help, but I'm still not sure I could have done them before writing the first draft.

michelle's picture

Character worksheets - I will keep that in mind!
Some writers draw up a list of interview questions for their characters in order to "flesh out" and develop the characters.

Jocelyn Rish's picture

I actually found someone during the A to Z challenge who wrote all their posts from the POVs of various characters from her novels, which I thought was really cool. 

Jess Schira's picture

Yay you!! It sounds like you've made excellent progress. I've always felt that you can get away with a weak plot, provided you have fantastic characters. I've always let my characters grow and develop in my head before giving them free rein when I write and let them go wherever the wind blows. Next time I'm getting ready to start a new project, I might have to give character sheets a try.

Jocelyn Rish's picture

I *thought* I knew my characters, but I realized I only knew them in the scope of the plot not in their "lives" before the story started.  It was a huge help.

Valerie Lawson's picture

i absolutely think this work counts as progress on your WIP! although i haven't used character worksheets myself, i think they could be very useful. i did write out histories for my main characters for my current WIP, though, and i was surprised at how often i went back and referenced them or even added to them. i may try the character worksheet idea for my next manuscript. thanks for sharing!

Jocelyn Rish's picture

I think the worksheets are just a more formalized version of your histories - whatever we have to do to make these crazy characters real! :-)

Rachael Harrie's picture

Yay for finding this so useful (and for fabulous CPs *grins)! And don't worry at all about wasting time, I think this is SO necessary, and will show amazingly through your next draft. Which I CAN'T WAIT to see :)

Big hugs,


Jocelyn Rish's picture

Thanks again for the great advice, Rach! :-)

Sheenah Freitas's picture

I've never done a character worksheet per se.... But I've looked at some and wondered why I would need to know what my character's favorite movie when they obviously don't watch movies while traipsing around a forest. But I suppose what you say makes sense. A lot.

The one thing that I have done, however, is writing from my character's POV. If I'm stuck on a scene or something, I'll pull out and start writing that scene in first-person to get a better idea of how that character is thinking and it really helps flesh out some of those scenes. I've also done the room exercise -- you describe a room from various characters' POV. And it's really fun. I have one character who notices all the nitty gritty details of a room that no one else would ever pick up on, some might notice a window first, others might notice the color or smell of the room, etc. If you haven't done that exercise, you should try it. You'd probably really enjoy it since you enjoyed the worksheets. :)

Jocelyn Rish's picture

I like the sound of the room exercise - and without even trying I can already hear how two of my characters would describe where I'm sitting right now.  :-)

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