The Page a Day Writers Group

The Insides of a Character

Posted on: May 16, 2010

Years ago after Janet Fitch published her novel, “White Oleander,” I attended a workshop she did for San Diego Writers, Ink.  If anyone has read “White Oleander” you know it’s full of poetry and sensory details, two things that Fitch does very well.  The morning of the workshop, Fitch arrived in a gauzy skirt and orange shirt looking like a hippie or a poet.  The other thing I noticed about her is she carried a huge wooden box under her arm and a bag of props in another.

“These are going to help you write,” she said lifting them in the air.  Oh, good, because I needed help in that department.  She opened the box.  Inside were small vials of scented oils.  She opened the lavender, and breathed deeply.  “This is the scent I leave next to me when I’m writing about the mother in the novel, Ingrid Magnussen.”

What kind of craziness was this?  Really?  Surrounding yourself in the smell of a character, but the character isn’t real…Wait, Fitch had unleashed a whole new way of bringing life to a character.  Throughout the afternoon she had us participants wrapped in feather boas or a shawl and feeling sand with our fingertips.  All this to ensure our characters are three dimensional through our senses. For Fitch her characters were real to her, so they became real to the reader, too.

There are other ways to get inside of your character.  Try these:

  1. Answer questions. Besides the obvious ones, like what color hair and eyes does your character have, start asking more in-depth questions.  What does your character like for breakfast?  What is her favorite color?  Where was she born?  Did she grow up with both parents, only one, neither?  What is her biggest fear?  What’s in her refrigerator? Nightstand? Garbage can?   When your character goes back to her childhood, what does her kitchen smell like?  Oatmeal cookies?  Clorox bleach? Mold?
  2. Observe. Get out of your office and go to a public place to people watch.  Choose an interesting person, maybe a big guy walking a miniature poodle.  Is it his wife’s?  Boyfriend’s?  Describe how he walks.  Why does his eyes dart back and forth?  What is he hiding?  What is he scared of?
  3. Chat with your character. Open up a word document and start a conversation with your character.

Me: Why are you lying to your best friend?

Molly: I’m not lying.  It’s not like she was really dating him…

Me: You’re sleeping with her boyfriend.

Molly: They were never together.

Me: What?  Aren’t they engaged?

4.  Stand-in Situation. Put your character in a situation and see how they handle it.  Try this: Your character is the only one who can save her enemy from drowning.  What does she do?  How does she react?  Or how about your character is betrayed by her best friend (see above)?  Does she forgive her?  Does she seek revenge?  How?

5. Monologue. A character can say a lot in a monologue if you allow her to.  A monologue allows your character (you) to go deeper and to really understand what makes this “person” tick.  Write the monologue in first person, even if this isn’t the point of view you’re using.  Give the character a theme.  Write about an emotional crisis the character is going through.  Write about a pivotal event in the character’s past.  Write about a crucial decision or crossroads the character is about to make.

Whether you’re writing fiction or creative nonfiction, it’s important to have three dimensional characters your readers will identify with or want to know better.  Hopefully these exercises will help turn your stick figures into fully realized characters.

Good luck!

Michelle Zive


5 Responses to "The Insides of a Character"

So helpful. Thank you Michelle. These are the little things that translate into big ways to bring your characters to life. I’m sure I’ll refer to this time and time again.

I’m glad this helps. As I was writing it, I too was reminded of all the ways we can breathe life into our characters.

Wow, I LOVE the idea of using scented oils as a character discovery method. Yes!! Scent is so loaded with associations. Thank you, Michelle.

Nice blog, Michelle. I laughed out loud at the part about the scented oils and your comment “What kind of craziness was this?” But then after thinking about it, I can really see how using scents could be helpful! Also, great ideas on how to get inside your character’s head! I can’t wait to try the ones I haven’t tried yet.

White Oleander was such a masterpiece. It makes sense, pun intended, that Fitch smells, feels and sees her characters so intimately. This entry was a great reminder, Michelle. Thanks!


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Who are we?

The Page a Day Writers Group is a diverse collection of wonderful writers based in San Diego, CA. We've been meeting monthly since 2004. Our primary function is in-depth writing critique, marketing and brainstorming, but there's usually some wine, chocolate and ribaldry involved too. We write fantasy, humor, literary fiction, nonfiction, romance, thrillers and YA. Join us on our journeys to publication and the wonderland beyond!


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