Getting to Know the Voices in Your Head

Getting to Know the Voices in Your Head

The other day I was sitting around with my three favorite writing pals, and Lorinda mentioned she was having trouble getting to know her heroine. Surprisingly, our outgoing and vivacious Lorinda is slow to warm up to people and include them into her inner world, and in an odd case of art imitating life, she has the same difficulty with the make-believe people running around in her brain.

This got me to thinking about how I get to know my characters and, Voila!, a blog post was born.

Over the years of studying my craft, I’ve seen/heard other authors suggest several methods for character development: character interviews, numerology charts, archetypes, stereotypes, reinventing a classic character (the modern-day Mr. Darcy pops to mind), loosely basing a character on a real person (Great Aunt Gretel?), or the ever-popular character mix-up (a cross between Marcia Brady and the Terminator). These are all sound approaches, but for me, they’re too structured. I guess I need a more pantser style of character development. 🙂

So when getting to know a character, I start with a spin-off of something I learned a in Scriptwriting class a million years ago in college: The Character Biography.

Basically, I start with: “Sue Smith, 29, an out-of-work hairdresser from Wichita.” And from there it’s several pages of free writing—keeping in mind what I think I know about my upcoming story – until she’s got a life. Usually, she gets vague parents, some childhood event that helped shape the woman she is on page one, a region she grew up in, what she wanted to be when she grew up, what she became when she grew up, and if she’s really taking form in my brain, several unplanned, unexpected aspects of her history will pop up. (She lost her virginity at a Guns ‘N Roses concert? Who knew?)

To truly make a Character Bio work, you have to turn off your inner editor and just give your fingers – and The Girls – free reign. I’m talking directly to you here, Lorinda.  🙂

After I’ve completed my character ramblings, I stew for a few days on what I’ve learned, then I try to come up with a few intentional characteristics that will help me build my story. Although, to be perfectly honest, more often than not, I discover these while writing the first couple of chapters. Traits such as:

Word choice: Is her language salty or sweet? Does she curse like a sailor in her head but restrict herself to “darn” and “fudge” out loud? WHY?

Coping mechanisms: Does she cry alone in the bathroom when she’s upset or does she beat the crap out of a heavy bag at the gym? Does she keep order in her life by being a clean freak or by refusing to pick her shoes up from the living room floor? WHY?

Phobias: Is she afraid of heights or dogs or grocery stores? WHY?

Quirks: Does she insist on fresh flowers for her desk? Does she micro-manage the wait staff when she goes out to dinner? Does she take her pet ferret everywhere she goes? Does she insist on giving a five-dollar-bill to every homeless person she passes? WHY?

Whichever method you choose, the critical part of crafting a character isn’t really to line out the specific events of her life but to get under her skin and find out what makes her tick. She’s afraid of grocery stores because when she was six, her mom left to go to the grocery store and never returned. She insists on fresh flowers on her desk because her dream is to one day quit her stuffy day job and open a florist shop.

The bottom line here is once you discover the facts of your characters’ lives, you have to discover what personality facets hide behind the facts. Every detail needs to relate to some piece of her GMC – goal, motivation, conflict.

It’s not about creating interesting people. It about creating dynamic, driven characters worthy of starring in your story.



Dawn Temple

Back when her twin sons were young enough for daily naps, Dawn Temple took advantage of those quiet moments to pursue her dream of becoming a published romance writer. Sneaking in an hour here and there paid off in 2005 when she sold her first book, To Have And To Hold, to Silhouette Special Edition. She managed to secret away enough time to write and sell the second book in her Land’s Cross series, Moonlight And Mistletoe, but alas, her boys outgrew naps and Dawn let go of those stolen moments with her laptop to enjoy life with her two little guys and her big guy, hubby of 21 years.
But now, as an officially retired stay-at-home mom, Dawn has once again found the time and the creative drive to return to writing, and this time around, she’s set her sights on independent publishing. Her first self-published book, Peace of Heart, is scheduled for release in 2017.

7 thoughts on “Getting to Know the Voices in Your Head

  1. Free-form character expo? Hmmm. Think I’ll give that a go next time around. Cause not only do I have to get to know these folks but I have to like them (or despise them as the case may be).

  2. Free rein – for me, as a committed pantser, that part comes easy. However, TRUST is a different issue. So, I’m writing along on this journey we’re taking together, and suddenly I discover that she can’t skip – say what? Can’t or won’t? This is stupid, why does it matter? But it is THERE – so I put in and go on, knowing it can be deleted second draft if nothing develops. But, inevitably – something ALWAYS develops. Now, I’m wondering why I wrote ‘she can’t skip’ – seriously, I’ve never written about skipping, so where the hell did that come from? If the girls ever clue me in, I’ll let you know – otherwise, assume 2nd draft deletion!

    1. These are the great character tidbits that I love. And not all the things you learn about your people will make it to the page, but the way you write them and present them to your reader will be richer simply because you know this poor woman can’t skip!

  3. Or maybe prohibition from SHOPPING is a character motivation. Oh wait, that’s not fiction. That’s real life! Love ya, Terri! Now go write!

  4. This is a great idea, Dawn! I love the idea of sort of free-associating with minimal guidelines for finding out who the characters are.

    One thing I did for my action/adventure novels was to write a throwaway scene starring the heroine. This allowed me to find out who she was in that particular moment — her language, her sense of style, how she dealt with surprise and conflict — and then work backward from there. Little did I know that the “throwaway” scene where Jessie kicks open the stuck door of her Amazonian hotel room to find a handsome man in the bathtub would end up in the published product… but it totally worked. The throwaways for the others never made it into the books, but they went a long way toward helping me understand those women.

    These days, I tend to write fewer throwaways as I think I’ve gotten a little more comfortable trusting what the Girls are whispering to me. But I know if I ever get stuck, I can either do that or do a character sketch in the way you’re talking about here.

    Thanks for the great suggestion!

    1. Oooh. That was one of my favorite Jessie scenes. And knowing that’s what you call a “throw away” scene blows my mind!

      Also, the benefit to a free-flowing character biography document is the fact that you quickly do away with the dreaded blank page. For some reason, it makes the “real” writing seem easier.

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