Discovering Characters

Let your characters grow from your subconscious.

I don’t like character trait worksheets.  Yes, I know that you need to know your characters backwards and forwards, but I can’t just make a list out of thin air.  Does she like rap or soft rock? Pizza or steak?  Dog person or cat person? Sleek blonde or frizzy brunette?  If she’s a doctor, is she a surgeon or a radiologist?  Obviously, I need to know some things when I start, but many of these list items don’t matter at the beginning.

Instead, I tend to discover my characters as I write.  I may have an image of what they look like, and I may know a few key things about them that pertain to the conflict in the book, but the more I write, the more I discover.

There’s a scene in my women’s fiction WIP where the mom goes into the daughter’s room the morning after a confrontation.  They were just going to talk, but what came out of my fingers was that while the daughter is still asleep, the mom starts picking up clothes lying around, and uncovers her daughters journal.  And starts to read it.  Huh?  What happened to the honorable mother I thought she was?

In a NaNoWriMo story a few years ago, the scene that had played in my head was the teenage brother telling his sister that their dead mother didn’t care what the girl did, that she wasn’t watching from heaven.  But what came out after that was him shouting something like, “There isn’t any God, anyway!”  Wow.  And here I thought he was just fed up with his sister’s obsessions.

In a chapter book (7-9 year old readers) I wrote a while ago, my main character turned out to be both artistic and klutzy, and not just the picked-on kid in class I knew about to begin with.

Some of these character discoveries come as I write, and I’m surprised what shows up on my keyboard.  Some come during my “shower musings,” when my mind wanders while I’m enveloped in warm water.  Either way, it’s my subconscious pulling out things more organically than I could ever force from a list.

I know some people spend enough pre-writing time with their characters to discover them nearly completely in their heads before they start writing.  But when I have a story idea, it’s hard not to start on it soon.  So for me, the process includes a lot of re-writing of early chapters as my characters become more fully realized.  It may not be the quickest way, or even the best way, but it works for me.

What about you?  How do your characters show themselves?

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