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By David Young · September 29, 2021
Your characters are emotional beings…well, at least 99.9% of the time. A lot of the time, they’re even human — though not always. But every character has agency and opinion and has their own way of dealing with the world. If not, they wouldn’t be much of a character.
So, how do you get to know your characters? How can you get inside their heads, without cracking them open with a buzz saw? After all, sometimes, characters are meant to be inscrutable to a degree. But as their writer, you need to know where they’re coming from — whether they’re your average young adult or an ancient evil unleashed from the underworld. The best ways to do that, in most cases, are shown below.
It may sound silly, but a lot of the time, a writer defaults to a perspective that steers away from personal views of the world, instead of looking at the big picture, keeping things in mind like plot while maintaining the actions and dialogues of various characters. But when you’re looking to create a connection with one character at a time (as you very well should), it’s important to instead write from that character’s point of view. Doing this by getting rid of the plot and just focusing on what your character would think to themselves about events, people, and different abstract ideas will make you really get to know them.
You can even forsake third-person voice to start speaking as if you were the character, letting whatever you write become a personal, intimate thought process — much like a diary. There’s even a quote that supports this, taken from another article on the subject:
“I used to believe that getting inside my character’s head was like sitting down and having a cup of coffee with her, but I figured out that wasn’t it at all. It was tuning in to what the character would say to herself.”
That’s the whole point. A diary is what someone confesses to themselves, and by paying attention to that, rather than what a character would say to you over a cup of coffee, you’ll find some truly revealing stuff.
If you’re interested in seeing how your character thinks, there’s one way that proves to be a lot more fruitful than you’d think. You see, one skill that you can only use if you understand how to read people is sales. That’s right, the sleazy car salesman trope is useful because when you have a sleazy car salesman in your story, he tends to read your characters’ weaknesses and exploit them for the sake of sales.
Now, you don’t have to be sleazy, but think about this: what would you need to know about your character to sell them something outlandish? For example, a magic carpet. You could try selling your character any crazy old thing, but the idea is that you have to convince them to purchase it. How would you do that in your conversation? How would you learn about what their desires are? What about how they see themselves?
All this knowledge about your character can be put down as a conversation. Write it if you like, or speak aloud, giving your pitch, but always have your sales mark stay “in character” — don’t change their perspective for the benefit of the exercise. Just focus on the sale, to someone that you mean to treat like a real person with real money… for a real magic carpet.
Bring other arts — the visual arts — into your writing process. Even if you don’t consider yourself a master of watercolors, even if you can’t color inside the lines, you can get a better picture of who your character is by drawing them, by painting them, or by any other cool method of visualization you can devise.
But that visualization is only step one: you have to make it personal, right? So, you can do more by drawing them in their own home, surrounded by the things they love. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll try to challenge yourself by making it a character self-portrait, answering this question instead: “How would my character visualize themselves with paint, sketchings, sculpture, etc.?”
If you go the extra step, you’ll even pick the medium that your character would choose: a character who sees themselves as straightforward and earnest might go for a drawing, while a tech-savvy character could decide to print a 3D model of their likeness. Keep your character in mind through the process, and you really can’t go wrong.
Every character has traits that you’ve assigned them — unless you truly have no idea who your character is. But the question is, why do they have these traits?
You say your character is brave but unintelligent? Why? What about their past makes them act so bravely so often, even when they have little understanding of their situations? Perhaps they had to act as the protector for their family, and even though they weren’t the smartest, they were the ones who stepped up to do it. You say your character is cloyingly pleasant, or demonstrably unpleasant? What has given them a reason to act that way by default? Perhaps it’s the way someone was raised — or maybe, they’re dealing with an internal frustration that they outwardly deny by being too pleasant, or by being most unpleasant.
The “why” of these traits can be deep-seated or shallow, but the idea is that asking “why” is what makes a character real. When you have reasons for the way they think, the way they act, the way they dress and part their hair (though not always so specific), you have given them a backstory, a personality, a psyche, all of which draw people in to learn more about your character.
If you feel like taking an extra step in this process, call it an interview; sit down with your character and listen to them explain themselves. When you ask “why”, listen to what that character says, and you’ll learn what their thought process is like. And that is just one more invaluable way to get to know them intimately.
It’s hard to imagine, but the people you create are meant to be as real as you and me. That’s what connects an audience to them — and it’s what makes stories so compelling. When you have characters you can understand as a writer, you’re more likely to make these characters real, and to make them relatable and believable to the audience as well. The methods above are but some of the ways you can get inside your characters’ heads. For anyone reading who uses different methods, comment below! After all, the more tools in our belts, the better writers we become.
David Wayne Young is an independent film producer and screenwriter with years of experience in story analysis, even providing coverage for multiple international screenwriting competitions. David’s obsessions include weird fiction and cosmic horror, and he’s formally trained in the art of tasting and preparing gourmet coffee in various worldly traditions, from Turkish coffee to hand-tamped espresso — all enjoyed while writing, of course.