On NOT knowing my characters, and why it works for me

Everyone says “know your characters,” but I don’t like to know my characters, at least not fully. Let me explain.

I’ll start with a confession: I despise character worksheets. I think they are the worst type of pre-writing homework. I’ve tried to like them. Years ago, before I started writing my first novel, I used a questionnaire to flesh out my main character. But half-way through I realized I was completely confused. The details I was being asked were so finite (Does the character have a birthmark? What is their favorite song? Their favorite color? Who is their idol? Explain their life motto.) I didn’t know the answers to these questions. Not yet. I knew some big picture things about my character, but how could I possibly know all these nuances before truly meeting them?

Perhaps there are two routes of “meeting” your characters, neither of which are wrong:

1) Meet your characters before your write, by way of character exercises
2) Meet your characters through the act of writing their story.

I’m in the latter camp.

I like my characters to surprise me. I’ve found that the best way for my characters to feel real and true to themselves is for their actions to spring from my typing fingers as naturally as they would spring from the fictional character had they been living, breathing flesh.

In the few instances where I’ve tried to flesh out a character before hand, I’ve found myself trying to shove them into a box, pack them up in a suitcase which clearly will not contain them. My characters would end up in situations acting one way, the way I’d started to document in a character worksheet, when in actuality, they were pounding against my computer screen and screaming, “But I don’t want to tell him I’m sorry! Let me pout and be reckless and storm off melodramatically. Please?”

So now, I never fill out character worksheets before starting a novel.* I figure out the answers to a few key questions upfront – big questions – and then I let the character flesh him/herself out as I write. I let them tell me who they are, not the other way around.

Perhaps an example will help.

What did I know about Gray, the protagonist of THE LAICOS PROJECT, before I started writing it? Aside from general appearance and age, I knew Gray was stubborn and rash. Instinctive. He valued his brother far more than himself because his brother could reflect on things before reacting, could avoid confrontation, could make everyone happy. I also knew that Gray had a streak of curiosity in him, and while he wouldn’t even know it himself at the beginning of the story, that curiosity was a dangerous trait that when fed, would cause him to hunt down answers and truths no matter the cost.

Again, big picture things. I knew his biggest goal (answers), his biggest fears (being worthless and inferior compared to his brother), and I knew what he was up against (the hook and subsequent plot for the story). Everything else fell into place as I wrote. I had ideas, sure. Skills I thought he might have. Mannerisms I believed might be natural for him. Memories that could be crucial pieces of his past. But I didn’t document them. I kept those details in the back of my head and when the situation arose on the page, I let Gray tell me if my initial thoughts were correct.

So why am I saying all this?

I’m not trying to tell you to throw out character worksheets. If they work for you and that’s how you write, keeping using them. Writing is a personal, individual process. What I am trying to say is that your characters are real. They live and breathe within the margins and you should not be afraid to listen to them. Whether you document their traits or not, don’t be afraid when your character tries to act in a way you hadn’t originally intended.

If you are writing a boy’s story and he suddenly wants to go to the reservoir in the middle of the night instead of attending the party, let him. Who knows what will happen at the reservoir, but gosh, I want to know now! And if a girl suddenly has thoughts of cheating on her boyfriend, even though you envisioned her as honest and committed and completely trustworthy, well maybe you should let her have those wandering thoughts. It makes her human, complex, flawed.

Listen to your characters. Let them take you places. If it ends up being wrong, you have the power of pressing delete. But don’t risk exploring your characters’ fullest potential for fear it might not fit your preconceived formula. You’re doing them a disservice, and besides, I hear they hate being put in boxes.

Maybe this all comes down to the fact that I’m more of a pantser than a plotter. Who knows. But at the end of the day, I avoid character worksheets. I believe I can’t define my characters. They define themselves.

So tell me, how do you flesh out your characters? Do you complete worksheets and questionnaires before writing? Do you meet your characters through writing their story? Or do you have a different method altogether? Let me know in the comments!

* I do sometimes fill out a rough character worksheet after writing a story. For LAICOS, I finally jotted down top level traits, characteristics, mannerisms, and key things to keep in mind for the sequel, just before it went on sub to editors. (So, after rounds and rounds of drafts.) These finally completed documents will help me keep my mind straight as I plan for the next installment. But until Gray & Co. told me their story, until they explained it to me, I chose to avoid documenting their characters via worksheets.

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