Characters are the reason I write.
Their voices lodge themselves in my brain. They tug on my sleeve and insist that I tell their stories. The greatest compliment that I can get as a writer is that my characters stay with people after they are done reading—that I have written full, multi-dimensional people that my readers want to hang out with or that they have empathy for, even if they are an antagonist.
Here are three techniques I use to get to know my characters as whole people:
1. Don’t just see their face—see their hands.
People’s hands can reveal a lot. Their age, their job or hobbies might leave a mark. Scars or tattoos tell stories. Their personality comes through in how they decorate their hands—for example, do they bite or manicure their nails?
To get to know one of your main characters, try the following four-paragraph exercise that will lead you into a scene.
In the first paragraph, describe the place you see the character in—it might be their bedroom or their usual hangout, somewhere that is significant to them. In the second paragraph, describe the character’s hands. That’s right, skip over their face and other features we usually go to and describe their hands. In the third paragraph, describe what they are doing with their hands: rolling a cigarette, lighting a fire, putting on lip gloss. Then, in the next paragraph, bring another character into the scene and have them interact.
2. Loves, hates, and horoscopes.
When I’m stuck in the middle of writing a book, which happens every time, I try to find ways to get to know something new about my characters. Taking Buzzfeed quizzes from your characters’ perspectives can be revealing of their loves, hates, and obsessions, and perhaps will lead you to writing an interesting scene about pie that reveals a big personality quirk.
If you gave them a birthday, read up on their sign—or alternately, read up on the signs and then choose a birthday that suits them. Check out their horoscope for the day and see what sort of scene it inspires.
One of my favorite scene-starters is what I call the “flow exercise.” See your character in their flow, meaning doing an activity they love so much they lose themselves completely in it—playing music, a sport, cooking, painting, etc. Describe how they do it, how it makes them feel. Live in their bodies, get under their skin, and make it really visceral. Then, move toward a conflict—allow what they love to get them into trouble. Firelight, a YA novel by Sophie Jordan, does this to open the book. The main character, a draki (part dragon, part human), sneaks out to fly, but she gets caught. Check it out on the publisher’s website, or get the sample delivered to your Kindle.
3. Get to know your supporting cast by writing their ballads.
I invented this one by accident while writing my second book, Ballads of Suburbia. I’ve always enjoyed getting to know the backstories of my secondary characters and antagonists in addition to my main protagonists. I like to write about their deepest secret or the moment that changed their life or outlook on the world completely and made them who they are.
In writing Ballads of Suburbia I actually got to use these moments because my characters kept a notebook where they recorded their “ballads” or the story of their deepest darkest secret, which they always introduced with lyrics from a song.
Now I use this whenever I am struggling to get to know a character, whether it is my lead, my villain, my love interest, or another secondary character. I listen to music (or keep my eye out for movie or book quotes that I think would speak to them) until I find the lyric that sums up that experience. I put that on the top of the page and then I dive into their inner darkness, and let my character or characters write about the moment that defined and changed them.
Want to learn more? Register for my six-session online course, Level Up Your Young Adult Novel, beginning the week of July 25.
Stephanie Kuehnert is the author of two young adult novels, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone and Ballads of Suburbia, and she has a young adult memoir forthcoming from Dutton in 2017. Stephanie has also been a contributing writer to Rookie, an online magazine for teenage girls, since its inception in 2011. She received her MFA from Columbia College Chicago in 2006 and has been teaching since 2009. She’s taught general Fiction Writing courses, classes that focus on character, and Young Adult Fiction courses to teenagers, undergraduates, graduates, and working professionals both in person and online at a variety of institutions including Columbia College Chicago, StoryStudio Chicago, MediaBistro, Hugo House, and Seattle University.