Writing Tips I Have Ignored No 3: know your characters inside-out

Of course you need to know a lot about your characters, and by the time you finish writing the first draft of your book you will, – but 100%, inside-out, every breath and thought and reaction they could ever have? And work all this out before you dare put pen to paper – or these days, fingertips to keys? Nah.

For a start, it would be impossible. Do you know every single thing about your oldest, closest friend? About yourself? Of course not.

Next – it can be a great delaying tactic. “Wait, I can’t write my lead character yet, I haven’t decided on their favourite colour/how they eat spaghetti/what phobias they have/what they would do if faced by an escaped elephant!”

If the story involves them always wearing clothes in their favourite colour, or having an overpowering fear of escalators, or actually being faced with an escaping elephant, you will need to know these things. But then if that’s what the story requires, you’ll have decided it already. In fact, your character may have told you so.

Which brings me to my third point: characters often decide these things themselves.

You might have one view of them but once you start writing, characters often have other ideas. They muscle in with characteristics you never envisaged, start doing things contrary to what you were aiming for, shooting their mouths off or refusing to co-operate. If you had tried to think out everything before you started, would there be room for this to happen? Or would you want to keep forcing them back on track? Letting characters develop themselves is often the most exciting route to take.

In my original plans for The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard, Impey Barnicott was meant to be a minor character. Grit in the oyster, just there to irritate and distract her older cousin Whitby. She was wispy and quiet, a bit spoilt, and had nothing much to do. But Impey wasn’t having that. The wispy, lispy mummy’s-girl turned out to be an act. She literally jumped into the spotlight, impressing everyone with her dancing talent – and incidentally giving Whitby, also a dancer, something really solid to be annoyed about. In the end Impey turned out to be one of the leads, and helped me resolve the big climax of the book. I hadn’t planned that at all… Impey took me there.

Now, you could say that’s all nonsense: it’s my book, peopled with characters I’ve created, and what they do is totally up to me. But it truly didn’t feel that way. If I had interrogated Impey’s character before starting on the writing proper, I’d have gone down the route of spoilt, quiet, pale and skinny, only child, er … er …what else fits with that? Timid? Shy? Clumsy? I can’t imagine that I would have given her the contrary personality and range of talents that popped up when I let her loose with all the other characters in Scenes Where Things Happen. She even told me what her real name is. (You’ll have to read the book to find that out.)

So I think that’s the answer, at least for me. You can’t really know all about your characters until you put them into action, discover how they act and react, bounce off each other, and deal with the challenges the plot throws at them. You should have worked out (at least some of) the plot beforehand, but you need space for everything to expand and develop, and it may go dashing off in directions you never dreamed of at the start. Like real people, your characters need to surprise you sometimes, shake up your expectations.

While thinking about this post, I realised that I didn’t know the birthdays of the main characters in my first two books – and that’s just because I DO know my latest heroine’s date of birth. Nancy Parker announces it on the first page. And that’s because it is highly relevant to the plot. Nancy’s story starts on the day she leaves school, and since the book is set in 1920 that’s the day that she turns 14.

I don’t think it matters that I can’t send my other lead characters a birthday card. Or maybe they’re feeling miffed that I don’t remember their birthdays! Now that is a question I could ask about future characters – are they good at birthdays? What would they like as a present? What kind of celebration would they absolutely hate? Hmm, I won’t start writing anything down just yet…


Nancy Parker’s Diary of Detection, featuring maidservants, mystery and murder, comes out in March 2016.


7 thoughts on “Writing Tips I Have Ignored No 3: know your characters inside-out

  1. I’ve tried planning my characters more before starting to write but I always leave some room for their development. I have a bunch of character questionnaires but I rarely fill every question, just those I feel matter the most. I like being surprised by my characters. In my Nano this year, one character completely changed careers because apparently she felt the previous job was beneath her. One character, who I thought was just broody and annoying, turned out to have quite a handful of redeeming qualities. So while it’s important to know your characters, it’s also important to give them some space to show what they’re really like.

    • Sounds like you work like me, Niina. You’re turning them into ROUNDED characters with more facets than at the start. (Sorry, rounded and faceted – luvverly mixed metaphor there!) I like the fact that one of your characters turned out a lot nicer than you thought – that’s happened to me several times, and I end up very fond of them. The character questionnaire is interesting, I’d love to hear more. I’ve found it really productive if you get a writing mate to fire questions at you about your character. You can get some really unexpected questions – and answers – then.

      • I’ve hoarded a bunch of questionnaires/character sheets on my computer, although I don’t them that much anymore. But if you’re interested, you could try looking at epiguide.com/ep101/writing/charchart.html or writerswrite.com/journal/jun98/how-to-create-a-character-profile-6986. The questions are fairly simple mostly, but sometimes there are interesting ones that make me think of something I hadn’t even considered before. Writing mates are certainly useful! For a bit of roleplay you could set up an interview where you try to answer as the character.

  2. I find sometimes I “know” a character and other times, however much I think about them, they don’t seem quite right on the page. And in those cases, knowing their favourite food or colour doesn’t really help much. So I’m with you on this one, Julia!

    • It’s a difficult one, isn’t it?. You can do all that detail-deciding in hope of rounding them out and still think “meh”. Whereas with other characters you just think “and” …”and”… “and” quite easily, and it all feels true.

  3. The line “characters often decide these things themselves” sent a shiver up my spine. Because that is exactly what happens with mine! Which is what makes writing so exciting.

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