Paula thinks about how she gets to know her characters.
I’ve had quite a lot of reviewers say they feel like they ‘know’ my characters e.g. “so well written that I feel I know all the characters personally” and “you feel that you have actually met them”.
Comments like this are great because they show the reader has really engaged with the characters – and it goes without saying that this will only happen if we, as writers, have also engaged with our characters. Or rather, with our ‘people’, since according to Hemingway, “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”
We probably all have different ways of getting to know our characters in order to portray them realistically. At one end of the spectrum are the authors who write a detailed biography of their characters before they start the story and sometimes find pictures of them all to pin up near their computers. At the other end of the spectrum are the authors like me, who start simply with a name, and maybe (but not always) an occupation.
I’ve seen character ‘bio sheets’ or profiles that suggest you list everything from the person’s shoe size to what they like for breakfast, and from their best/worst childhood experience to their favourite movies/books/singers, and their political or religious beliefs.
Fair enough, if this helps a writer to ‘know’ their characters, but it wouldn’t work for me. I couldn’t work from a pre-formed ‘creation’ of a character. I prefer to get to know my people as I write the first draft of the story (and even then I probably couldn’t answer all the questions on a character profile!). It’s rather like getting to know a person in ‘real’ life, and I find they gradually reveal more of themselves, their backgrounds, their personalities, and their hopes and fears. Quite often I blink in surprise when a character tells me something I didn’t know.
In my current ‘work in progress’, I knew the hero needed some ‘back story’ but when my brainstorming partner asked me about it, all I could say was, ‘I don’t know yet, I’m waiting for him to tell me.’ Well, it’s taken a while but eventually, almost 60K words into the story, he finally got around to telling me! Yes, I’ll have to go back now, and layer in some extra details earlier in the story, but to me, that works better than foisting a back story on him in advance. Better for him to tell me, than for me to tell him!
I’d be interested to know how much you need to know about your ‘people’ before you start writing their story.