Writers—What Do Your Characters Say About You?

This post has its roots in character Madeleine O’Brien’s guest post last Saturday. I mentioned in a reply to 4amWriter’s comment that character insights into an author could be an interesting exercise. And the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea.

For me, this isn’t difficult. My characters insisted on the chance to write posts for the blog. If I was going to write about them, they were determined to write about me and their views on the books. I didn’t argue. I know better. It’s probably obvious from this paragraph that I’m in the school of thought that the characters really exist “out there,” somewhere. If you’re one of my classmates, you might already have a good idea what your characters think of you.

But even if you believe characters are entirely your creation, may I suggest giving them the chance to voice their thoughts about you? I think the exercise is a great complement to those a writer undertakes to learn more about his characters. You might be surprised and learn something new about your writing and work-in-progress.

Take Madeleine’s guest post, for example. She slipped in an innocuous sentence about me taking too much dictation from the characters of Summer at the Crossroads, the first book I drafted. And when I typed up her words, I had to admit, she was right. Being so inexperienced, I gave the characters free rein at first. Now, with more words under my belt and reading up on writing do’s and don’ts, I know I have some overhauling to do.

But Madeleine was also subtly reminding me that I have to make her story work in written form in this world. She and the other characters provide the ideas, not the right words. The ideas in our heads are usually more complex than we can clearly write. No one wants to read a novel with complete conversations and play-by-play descriptions of the action. No agent would touch it. And a self-published book would be ridiculed in the reviews. We, the writers, have to edit those incredible ideas into something worth reading.

Madeleine had already made these points clear, before we did that post. But writing up the post was a great refresher for me, making me remember how important her thoughts were.

Sometime, when you’ve written yourself into a corner or you’re facing a brick wall, turn the pen or computer over to one of your characters. Let them tell you what they think. Are they unsure what to write? Offer ideas—maybe something like these.

  • What do they think of the corner you’re in? Did you have them do something out of character to get there? Should they be stuck like this? Maybe some scenes need to be deleted and replaced with others.
  • What do they think of your portrayal of them? Are they happy with it? Or have you missed something important in them, like a crush on a minor character or their continuing grief over someone’s death long ago?
  • Have you got the main plot correctly identified? Is there a subplot you’ve overdone or missed?

These are just a few suggestions. But I suspect if you sit quietly for a few minutes, your characters will have no trouble in making their thoughts about you and the writing clear. Listening to them may surprise you. And I think the insights are worth the time.

42 thoughts on “Writers—What Do Your Characters Say About You?

  1. My main character is self-involved… but for good reason. I think she would say that I’m portraying her as a little too grumpy and into herself! Which, in editing, will need some fine-tuning… people need to root for a character, and grumpiness usually doesn’t endear a reader to a character.

    That’s why I’m always drawn to multiple points of view in a novel (first person, all). I think it gives different perspectives of the same action. With the novel I’m working on now, though, I’m carrying the same narrator throughout… I’ll have to see how that works out and if the reader can “read between the lines” about what really happened versus the protagonist’s view of what happened.

    Good post!

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    • I’m not sure many characters want their flaws pointed out to an audience—and I can’t blame them. :) I don’t like people knowing about mine! But readers need to see them; “perfect” people don’t exist, and “perfect” characters are usually boring. ;)

      I love multiple POV in novels, maybe too much so as a writer. In life we can’t really get into another person’s head, no matter how well we know them. But like you, I enjoy seeing the same events from different perspectives in a book. Although, first person is really difficult for me, and I’m not sure I could handle one character that way, let alone several!

      I think some grumpiness is fine, especially if that’s a true part of the character. After all, aren’t a lot of detectives grumpy? Inspector Morse, Kurt Wallander….. Oh, but Jack Trainer of Death Out of Time is on me to make clear he isn’t. ;)

      By the way, please thank your dad for explaining how to do italics and bold in comments! I like italics for book titles so much more than using quotation marks.

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      • I’ll tell my dad! I would have to refer back to what he said to remember his advice, myself.

        Yes… somehow, I think readers are more forgiving of grumpiness in male characters, particularly detectives. I’m working on making my female character more likeable while retaining her complexity.

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  2. Great post. My characters and I have known each other for many years, and although their personalities and motivation and goals haven’t changed, certainly their paths have as I have fiddled with the big P-word: Plot (my nemesis, apparently).

    I definitely know that my characters believe in me as the one to tell their story. They have been very patient with me and like to keep me up at night with ideas of their own. We work really well together. I try out their ideas, and they let me try mine. When it is obvious something isn’t working we seem to find it relatively easy to start over without a lot of arguments.

    I also believe that they exist out there, somewhere, as you say, and that if we were to ever meet in real life we’d connect immediately.

    I root for them as much as they root for me. They won’t let me give up, no matter how many rejections I have received, no matter how many brick walls I have hit, no matter how many dead ends I have written myself into.

    I think if they were asked of my flaws, they would immediately say I am not enough of a risk taker and that I have difficulty getting them into the kind of trouble that they might not get out of. That point of no return–that’s really hard for me to manage.

    I like the questions that you suggest to pose to our characters and vice-versa. I think those are points I have discussed with my characters at various turns, maybe not posed so directly but certainly we have hashed out problems and solutions between us.

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    • Having been privileged to read your manuscript, I can understand why your characters stick with you. You really bring them and their stories to life in our world. :) I know your novel will find a good audience when it’s available.

      I have a hard time putting my characters into serious trouble, too—especially the ones I really like! I don’t want bad things to happen to them. But while not every book should be on a par with Job’s troubles, our characters have to face some kind of conflict. Otherwise, what are the stakes for the reader? I hope I’ve improved this somewhat in the draft I’ll be sending you in a few days! (But I know more is still needed ;) )

      Personally, I think you’ve done a good job with problems and conflicts for your cast. They’ve dealt with some major issues and are still working through them. It takes time for them, just as it does for us. They, and the plot, are definitely three-dimensional. I will have no reservations recommending your book to readers. :)

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  3. It’s like turning your characters into beta readers! I think you’ve discovered a great tool for any creative writer looking to self-critique (or tighten up) their work!
    Fantastic idea, and one that would work REALLY well in script writing!

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    • Thank you! :D Interacting with characters just comes naturally to me. (Although sometimes it would be nice if they were better about taking turns…. Not that I’m complaining!) But I really think it’s a great exercise, even for those writers who think they’re in total control of the creative process.

      And I love that idea of them being beta readers! That is a great way to look at them! And Madeleine’s guest post has really helped me approach revisions with a fresh eye again. And I thank her for that. :)

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    • I highly recommend trying it. I think when given the chance, our characters can really help with the creative process. And sometimes that’s by helping us realize we got something wrong or didn’t handle it as well as we should. Mine have helped me better understand my writing process and offered some ways to improve it. How can you beat that?

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  4. I’m not sure my right brain is active enough for my characters to communicate with me as much as yours do with you, although they certainly take on a mind of their own during the actual writing process. Now, if I could get one to write a blog post for me? That would be great. A break is always nice. ;)

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    • I bet a lot of characters would jump at the chance to write a blog post. Why should the writers get to do everything? We just have to be open to hearing their ideas. ;) And if my right brain can do it, I’d bet yours can, too.

      I think even outliners can benefit from listening to the characters and writing down their (the characters’) ideas. Even if you don’t use them in a manuscript, I bet it would give you good insight into their thoughts and behaviors and provide inspiration and detail for the scenes that are in the book.

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  6. It scares me to consider what my MC thinks of me. I can hear her yelling, “Why did you make me do that? Who told you I was fired from my first job and why do you want to blab it to the world? I didn’t gain ten pounds!” etc.

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    • Mine will argue about how much to reveal, what parts of the story MUST be in the book, why am I spending time with the other manuscript…. Interestingly, though, the cast of one WIP is much more “in my head” than the other. It’s just part of how the two works are so different from each other, I guess.

      Try letting her write something about you. You may get an interesting blog post from it! :)

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  7. That’s an interesting way to look at it if you are stuck. Have a character answer those questions (if possible). It gives you a different perspective, or at least allows you a chance to step back albeit in a different way.

    I’m not sure I would have the characters talk to me in that way unless I was stuck, but that is just me. I can see the benefits of it.

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    • I don’t think the creative process is the same for any two people. Even two organized outliners probably have differences between them. But I think it’s a good exercise to try at the right time for each writer—be it at a brick wall, when written into a corner, or just as a prompt of sorts on a day when the mind is wandering a bit.

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  8. My main character was very much ‘me’ and so afraid to over analyse herself. By the end of the book she was forced to come to turns with who she was and that in turn helped me do the same thing.

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    • I think it’s wonderful when we can learn lessons from our characters—whether they’re versions of us or not. Readers can learn so much about the human condition from novels, but I think writer can take away even more.

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  9. I might have to do that with one of my side characters. At the moment she feels so boring I feel like killing her off by having her getting hit by a building or something. At least her death would be interesting. (Only I can’t do that because it’s a MG and I don’t want to traumatize anyone.)

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    • I think it would be an interesting exercise to let her write about you—and maybe also about your main characters. Maybe she knows more than you realize, or the mains are trying to keep her quiet about something…. ;)

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  10. Hmm. This gives me something to think about. I always feel like an eavesdropper in their world, but I never thought of them as being aware of me. Very interesting JM, very interesting. :)

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    • Some folks might just think I’m crazy. ;) But I’m fairly sure I’m not. I just think it’s a two-way street when it comes to characters and writers. Who knows? Maybe they’re writing about us in their worlds! :D

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  11. In my notes somewhere I have a printout that basically says, allowing your characters to have a voice about you is an excellent way to not only know your characters better, but actually improves your character development.

    Author: “Hey, I’m in charge in here. You go when I say go…”

    Character: “Oh? But I have a mind of my own!”

    Good post JM! :)

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    • Thanks, Jeannie! So maybe I’m not the only one who thinks the characters are fully aware of us and know what goes on in our lives! I just hope all of this is ultimately leading to good characterization in the novels! I’d feel terrible if after all this, I couldn’t do the stories justice….

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  12. I wanted to say I’ve tagged you in a round of blog tag :) The post will be up on Thursday. I know it isn’t much, but it’s a thank you for being so supportive when I started my blog.

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    • For me, the worst thing would be for the characters to leave me for someone else. So I try to keep up with them and get their stories down. It can be distracting sometimes, but how lonely it would feel without them!

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      • Recently someone said to me “you just see writing fodder always around you”…
        What? don’t they SEE all the stories just pacing around waiting to be noticed? Characters begging for attention? (and they could get bored and wander off!)
        Writers and artists are a little more sensitive and perceptive. Sort of like a good archeologist who can just sense something buried…a story to be told. Pretty much the same thing?

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    • Go for it! Letting my characters take over the keyboard now and again has really helped me better understand their personalities and motivations. And it’s led me past some sticking points. Even if you can’t use what they write, you may get ideas for something you can. :)

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  13. This is an interesting idea…
    My characters have never spoken to me, though I feel I know many of them very intimately – especially the main character. They live in a different world than the one I inhabit. It’s more like I’m looking over their shoulders and into their heads as a kind of disembodied spirit. They don’t know I’m there and in most cases it would completely shake up their world views if they did. I do feel as if they have an independent existence, though. I can’t do just anything with them. I think my main character would be really resentful if he knew I was controlling his life. He doesn’t respond well to that kind of thing…

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    • I think every writer’s relationship with her characters is unique. And the casts from my two WIPs interact with me in different ways. So it varies even at that level. But they are very much aware of me, and if they could, they would tell you they brought the book ideas to me.

      But I think it’s still an interesting exercise even for writers who don’t share that view. I think being able to write “as the character” and looking at the story from a different perspective can reveal character traits and plot ideas that weren’t clear before. And, of course, no writing exercise is ever wasted.

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    • I definitely recommend it. Even if you’re an organized outliner who thinks the characters are entirely your creation, it’s a very “out of the box” type of exercise. And frankly, it’s a lot of fun as well as insightful. :)

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