Monday, May 8, 2017

Get to Know Your Characters in 4 Steps

by Britney Gulbrandsen

It’s a well-known fact in the writing world that in order to write a good book, you’ve got to have voice. And a big part of having voice in your manuscript is through your characters (especially if you write in first-person). How do you give your characters voice? Well, first you have to really know them.

This is definitely one of those easier-said-than-done things, but once you really get to know your characters and find their voice, something magical happens: writing the manuscript becomes much easier. I promise. So it’s definitely worth your time to sit down and really get to know your characters before you start writing. I’ve been down the path of getting halfway through the first draft only to realize that my character has no voice and I don’t even know who she really is. Trust me; you don’t want to go there. It’s much better to start off with some knowledge about who your characters are.

Here are four steps to help you get to know your characters.

#1: Give Them A Face

What do they look like? What color hair do they have? Is it long or short? Do they have freckles or dimples or a birthmark? What’s their most notable feature? I can’t start formulating a character’s personality until I know what they look like.

For me, I like to do this visually, rather than writing it all out. I love photos, so I search stock photos until I find one that stands out to me. Then I base my character off of that. Alternatively, you can use someone you know or a celebrity, or even sketch your own character.  The important thing is that you give them a face.

#2: Fill Out A Character Worksheet

I like to answer a bunch of different questions about my character. First, I answer some basic questions, such as, what’s her favorite color or what’s her favorite food? Even these simple questions make a difference in solidifying the character and making her start to seem real.

Next, I move on to some random questions. What’s her pet peeve? Or what personality quirks does she have? Does she have any speech patterns? These questions help a ton with the future writing process. I go back to these answers when writing dialogue, awkward moments, or heated encounters.

Finally, I answer the important questions, the ones that really get to the heart of the character. What’s her greatest fear? What motivates her? What’s her darkest secret? What’s her biggest regret? These questions help with plotting and giving your writing purpose and meaning. 

#3: Make Them Real

Now that you know what your character looks like and can answer various questions about him, it’s time to take him from something on paper to something real. This step can be really fun!

There are a lot of different ways to do this, but here are some ideas to get you started:
·       Create a playlist for your character (not a playlist for the tone of your book, but rather the songs your character would have on their phone.)
·       Create a Pinterest board for your character. If she were real, what would SHE pin?
·       Gather up some objects in your house that remind you of your character and keep them on your writing desk.
·       Create a vision board for your character. What would she put on her board?
·       Make a list of TV shows and/or movies your character would love, and then watch some of them.
·       Does your character have a certain hobby? Go do that hobby yourself.
·       Go to the store and pick out an outfit your character would wear.

Doing one (or all) of these activities will help your character become real to you. And if your character is real to you, it’ll be that much easier to make them seem real to your readers.

#4: Writing Exercises

So now that your character is real, it’s time to give them a voice. This is where writing exercises come into play. Write a journal entry for your character from before the book starts. Interview them. Put them in a tricky situation and have them get out of it. Have them describe a crucial moment in their life. Don’t do all of these, just pick one and write for at least ten minutes straight.

Now Write the Book

Congrats! You created a character that can become real to your readers. Now it’s time to write your book. I think it’s important to add that while getting to know your character before you begin writing is helpful, don’t let it keep you from actually starting. Never use “I don’t know my character well enough” as an excuse to put off writing your manuscript. All these activities can be done in a day or two, collectively. And getting to know your character should never take more than a week! Get to know your character, make them real, and then WRITE.

Britney Gulbrandsen enjoys writing middle grade and young adult novels, although she also dabbles in various other genres including article writing, picture books, poetry, short stories, blogging, and more. Some may say she can’t make up her mind, but she prefers to consider it creative flexibility. She is a member of the American Night Writers Association (ANWA) and serves on the Board of Directors there. You can read her short stories in Mind Games by LDS Beta Readers and Apocalypse Utah: A Collection of Utah Horror. She lives in Arizona and spends most of her days making lists, reading, and trying to keep her two kids from burning down the house. Connect with her on Twitter @britgulbrandsen.


  1. Britney, great post! I'm going to try these steps with my next story. Thank you!

  2. Love this! Especially the progression of the questions you ask your characters.