Write Who You Know
Every writer has heard the phrase "write what you know." I don't necessarily agree with that, but that may be a topic for another week. I want to amend this statement to "write who you know."
What do I mean by that? Should you base all your characters on real people? No! Definitely not. There's all kinds of other issues with that. Again, maybe a topic for another week.
What I'm talking about is getting to know your character to the level where they feel real to you. A lot of writers say their characters are like their children, friends, or family. Not in the sense that they are like the writers real-life children, friends, and family, but in the relationship.
These are writers who know their characters so well that they appear like real people to them. And that's what you need to do, too.
Think of it this way. If you were to turn a real person into a fictional character, you'd be a step ahead of someone creating them from scratch. Not only do you know what they look like and what they like and don't like, you know their personality, background, fears, dreams, etc. You know them and you can figure out how they work fairly easily.
But when you create a character, it can be easy to get stuck filling out character sheets. You pick an eye color and hair color, height, build, etc. You pick a favorite food, favorite song, favorite color, animal, movie, etc. You choose some fears, dreams, make a family for them, toss in some background, and you're good to go, right?
Because you don't know that character like they're a real person. You know just as much about that character as you could learn by stalking someone's Facebook page. Which is to say, not much.
You need to ask yourself why to almost everything you know about them. Why do they love snakes? Why are they afraid of heights? Why is blue their favorite color?
When you starting asking why the character is the way they are, you start to get to know them. You know how they think, their personality, and the psychology behind their actions. You may find that when you start asking why, you'll have to change some of their original answers. You thought their favorite animal was a panda, but then you learned that their life goal is to be a vet because they had a dog die when they were a kid. Maybe dogs are actually their favorite animal.
It's okay to change the answers as you go along. In fact, it's good. I've mentioned that I do character interviews (you can find my list of questions at the bottom of the resources page). I often go back after I've finished the draft of the novel I'm working on and fix the interview. Because as I went along and asked why my characters were saying, doing, and believing the things they did, the answers changed.
But those characters are real to me. I know them and I can tell you how they'd react in situations I haven't written them in, because I know how their brain works. I know them like I know my best friend. Or my family.
So the idea here is not to make all of your characters versions of real people, or versions of yourself. The idea is to get passed knowing about them and get into knowing the why behind what you know. When you do that, the pieces of that character will fit together and you'll have a clearer view of them as a person.
It's one thing to know they're afraid of heights. It another thing entirely to know they're afraid of heights because they fell out of a tree as a kid.
And sometimes your character genuinely won't have a why for something. They like blue because they like blue. That's okay, too. The lack of a why also tells you about them.
For the record, this is also what people mean when they talk about having well-rounded or three-dimensional characters.
How well you do know your characters? Do you know them or do you know about them?