If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve probably come across that one blog that suggests character interviews is the solution to every writer’s writing block. Then they’ll give you a long fill-in-the-blank worksheet that has questions entirely irrelevant to your character’s interests. Why do you want to know about their love life? Who cares if they have a theme song? And they don’t have time for sports — the world is at stake, for Pete’s sake!
I will say that Charahub is a pretty legit place for these kinds of questions, but I personally think interviews are mostly useless unless you’ve already got a pretty good grasp on the character’s main interests that pertain specifically to the plot of your story. Only after you figure out their most immediate concerns (saving the world), can you focus on love lives and sports.
That being said, over the years I’ve discovered different ways to learn your character’s psyche — and some of these ways I’ve never heard recommended anywhere else.
1. Do fan art of your own book.
It doesn’t have to be good, and you don’t ever have to show it to a single soul after it’s done. It can be official, head canon, or your own “fan fiction” that’ll never see dawn. Become a “tumblr nut” where everyone is “shipped” and your characters give each other quirky gifts for Christmas. The point is putting all those excited thoughts in your head onto paper in a form other than words.
I considered one of my characters. After I got the basic face design down (and hair, more specifically), I started costume design. What would teenagers wear in the future? How would my character dress in the future? I thought about her characteristics, how she was barbed at times, and emotionally wounded from a broken family and a socialistic society. She doesn’t care about attracting attention or what the latest trends are. In fact, she probably would go for more sloppy and outdated clothes because she simply doesn’t care enough to put effort into her wardrobe.
How does drawing a character help you understand them, though? Well, for several of my characters, I came up with whopper backstories just from drawing them. For example, one of my characters I decided to give a skin color defect he got in a tragic past — because it looked cool.
Now these designs have made it into my book’s description and I have a much better concept of the culture, clothing, and even backstories of my characters because of it. If you want some inspiration on drawing and designing OCs, check out Katie Barber’s Instagram, graysarts, or Ezelle Van Der Heever on her Instagram as ezzymoneyface.
2. Make your characters a Pinterest board.
Some authors I know of will use Pinterest as inspiration or research. They’ll compile a board that says “Medieval Fashion” that they can reference when describing their scene, or other topics that might be valuable later in their draft.
But the reason I like using Pinterest is for character boards. For all my main characters, I have a board assigned to them. I pin pictures of what I imagine they might look like, what they wear, what they do for fun, something that might be important to them, pictures of them as children, their truck, their childhood treehouse — you name it. Some writers might go as far as imagining the board as if it belonged to the character himself. What would he post? What boards would he make if he were real?
Pinning relevant posts will also help you stumble across quotations or lines from other books that perfectly describe your character. This also helps you build backstory and character. Maybe you see something you think is really cool and then realize your character might think it’s cool too. Maybe an actor who looks like your protagonist is doing something very protagonist-y in the image you pinned. Let me show you a couple of my boards I created for two of my side characters. One has a very dark, tragic past that he has to face and battle every day of his life. As you can see, I have everything from quotes to childhood pictures for this guy.
My other character, Bryan, reveals through his board that he likes being active with friends, owns dogtags, and eats rather exotic teenaged boy food like pepperoni pizza cake.
3. Do real interviews.
My final piece of advice was discussed in another post I made awhile back about real character interviews. None of these pre-made, cookie-cutter worksheets you fill in. I learned that if I actually sit down with my characters and write myself into a narrative, I am able to let them lead the conversation instead of forcing upon them a list of questions. It’s the difference between sending a “Hey could you respond to these questions when you get a chance?” and a “Can we get coffee and talk?” You’ll find that by doing the latter, your characters will open up a lot faster, just as if you were getting to know a real person.
So. Hopefully these three suggestions will give you at least a little bit of direction if you’re finding yourself struggling with character development. I know they helped me, and even motivated me to write again when I wallowed in the tar pits of writer’s block.
What are some ways you get to know your characters?