“Getting to Know You” is a lovely song from the musical, The King and I, and it’s always been one of my favorites. I don’t care for it so much anymore now that some identity-theft company has borrowed it for one of their commercials. The idea of getting to know you has become associated with internet fraud, and that does make the song a bit less appealing.
But this post has nothing really to do with music or crime. It’s about storytelling and the importance of truly getting to know our characters.
With “SimLit”, much of the information we need to know is neatly compiled for us, readily available. No need to wonder about a character’s eye color or hair color, for instance. We can simply zoom in and take a look for ourselves.
A lot of writers go to elaborate lengths to get to know their characters, putting together “character interviews”, clipping illustrations from newspapers and magazines, and reading astrological profiles to gain insights into how the character might behave.
Some of this is good, but too much can be counter-productive. You want to write stories, not spend your time writing lengthy character biographies.
For me, getting to know my story characters is probably the most enjoyable aspect of fiction-writing. I keep it simple and try to create distinct characters for each story. A lot of the information remains “in the background” as I write. We don’t have to use every detail. But it’s there in our heads, helping us understand who our characters are so that we can better know how they will react in different situations. Knowing our characters helps us “get inside” their heads — and hearts — as we share their stories with our readers.
Here are the things I want to know about each of the important characters in my stories:
- Character name
- Where does the character live?
- Favorite music
- Favorite food
- What color is the character’s room?
- What is this character’s favorite memory?
- What is this character’s most traumatic experience?
- What is this character’s most prized possession?
- What scares this character?
- 5 likes
- 5 Dislikes
- What word do others use to describe the character?
The answers to these questions can give us a good look at who a character is and why they act the way they do. Understanding what’s important to a character — favorite memories, prized possessions, personal surroundings — and what upsets him or her — traumatic events, fears, dislikes — goes a long, long way toward helping us really know the people in our stories. This leads us to a better understanding of what our characters want, how they hope to get it, and why it matters so much.