Tag Archives: Getting to know your characters

May I introduce ..?

When writing fiction, it is important to get to know your characters as best you can. In the shortest pieces of writing, this might not involve anything apart from hearing their “voice” in our heads, but with longer works, more is required.

Take, for example, my current novel, Eric. The main characters are Eric himself, who is 50-something and English, and his Mum, Lillian, who is a dementia patient. To ensure that the Eric of chapter 49 sounds the same as the Eric of chapter 3, and different from Lillian (who must also be internally consistent) takes more than just a casual acquaintance with them. Much of this comes in the editing process, but I find it useful to experiment with a few things before the first word hits the page (or at least, early on in the first draft). Many writing guides focus on lists – age, height, favourite food, hair colour, level of education … etc. And that’s all good stuff, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the person does it?

Occasionally, in this blog, I’d like to introduce you to a few exercises I use to get to know my characters better. They are fun and, even if you’re not a writer, you might like to try one on someone you know. Maybe it will even help you understand them better!

When introducing two people at a party, the best introductions involve three pieces of information. First: name; Second: relevant information (eg job title at a business function, relationship to you or the couple at a wedding etc); Third: interesting fact. You get one point for each of these, for each person, a maximum of 6 points in total. But, you get three bonus points if your interesting facts somehow link these two previously unknown people.

Note that this interesting facts should be neither boring nor overly personal. If you introduce two people at a wedding, you don’t share their innermost secrets or insecurities.

To show you how it works, let’s introduce Bob and Matilda to each other.

Bob, this is Matilda (1), she is the bride’s aunt (2) and is addicted to coffee. I once saw her ditch the mug and sit with the cafetiere between her knees. (3). Matilda, this is my best friend(4), Bob (5), he runs a coffee plantation in Bury St Edmunds (6,7,8,9 … we have a winner!).

Bob and Matilda can now be left to talk to each other entirely unaided, because you, the introducer, have given them a clear pointer as to a topic of conversation which will get them under each other’s skin.

Making introductions like this on the fly at parties, is hard work and takes practice. Unless you were planning this meeting, you’re unlikely to have these links worked out in advance. With characters, you can have a little more time to think about it. But here’s my first draft introduction between Eric and Lillian if, hypothetically, they didn’t know each other.

Lillian, this is my main character (1), Eric (2). He’s researching his family history and struggling with just how much he doesn’t know(3). Eric, this is Lillian (4), she’s your mother (5,6,7,8,9!).

Go to it, and feel free to post you favourite introductions (fictional or otherwise) in the comments below!

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