When I was writing STORYTELLERS I had the sort of experience only a fiction writer could have. While shopping at my local mall, I noticed the clothes modeled by the mannequin in the window display and stopped dead in my tracks. My first thought was, "Piper would like that." Piper was my protagonist--a fictional character. It gave me a chill to realize I'd made my comment in the same way I might say, "Oh, Chuck (my husband) would like that shirt." Piper was very much alive to me. I knew what she'd wear and what outfits would make her turn up her nose. I knew how she walked, whether she would charge the outfit or pay cash, and how she would accessorize it. She was always spinning around in my mind. One night, I even had a dream that was a Piper dream--not one that I was likely to have experienced.
If you don't know your main characters as well as you know your best friend, you're cheating yourself and your readers. (And that doesn't apply only to good guys--that goes for villains, too.)
You not only need to know what your characters look like and how old they are, but things like where they went to school, what experiences they had there, what they eat for breakfast, whether they're registered voters, and if so, which party they've affiliated themselves with and why.
Sound like a lot of work? It's less time-consuming than you may think and worth the effort when you see the difference it makes to your story. It enriches your writing, ensures that you care about your characters (which means your readers will care about them) and helps you as a writer avoid having your characters take missteps, or act "out of character," if you will.
One good place to start is by finding pictures in magazines of people you envision as looking like your characters. Tack these up near your computer. A glance at them while you're writing will enable you to keep physical descriptions alive and vivid.
Make brief biographical sketches of all main characters. Include chronological things like their date of birth, date of high school or college graduation, and date of marriage. Study their personality quirks. Do they shoot off at the mouth before they think? Are they slow and methodical, or bubbly and bouncy? Do they have any memorable speech characteristics--a pet phrase, an accent? Did any major events happen in their childhood that influenced their personalities as adults?
If you're writing a novel, you'll want to update these sketches as things occur to you, or when you realize that you have to go back and lay the groundwork for something that happens in your character's life. Such exploration into your character's background may very well suggest subplots and plot threads that will give your novel a complexity it might otherwise lack.
One of the best ways of getting to know your character is by becoming your character. Close your eyes and think of everything that's happened to your character so far--those influences from childhood, those devastating love affairs, those hopes and dreams still unfulfilled. Imagine "yourself" in the scene you are currently writing. Hear (through his ears) the music that is playing. Smell (through his nose) the croissants baking in the Boulangerie. Feel (on her skin) the breeze off the ocean, taste (in her mouth) the tang of her tears as she licks them off her lip.
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