Writing Question: Getting into Characters’ Heads

Ask readers what makes a good story good and they are likely to say “the characters.” But how does a writer create characters that are engaging, believable, and distinct?  And how does a writer bring such characters to life on the page? We asked Odyssey graduates:

How do you get into your characters’ heads? Do you make all your characters similar to yourself in some ways? Do you use research to better understand different types of people?

Sherry Peters, Class of 2005

For me, characters are the most important part of the story, and my starting point. I need time to get to know my characters and find out what their stories are before I write them. I have several conversations with them to find out who they are and what their story is. The conversations go both ways, because they need to trust me to be able to tell their story. In the novel I just finished, I had a lot of trouble with one of the characters, so I pulled him aside and we had a nice long, long chat, dealt with the trust issues and finally got to the truth of his story. It meant I had to change a lot of what I had written, which I was not all that impressed about, but I think the end result is much better than what I had before. Also, the character and I are on much better terms now that he let me in.

Right now, I’m starting a new novel, and while I sort of know one of the characters, there is another I need to get to know from scratch, and this time I think it is more my issue of being willing to get to know new characters and their stories. I admit, I’m a little hesitant to invite them into my life, and I’m resisting getting involved in theirs. In the end, it will be worth the effort, but it’s like picking up and moving somewhere new and not wanting to leave behind old friends and yet needing to make new ones. Because as goofy as it sounds, the characters I write become really good friends. I don’t have to like them at the start. One in particular comes to mind:  she and I fought for months before I consented to write her story; now I love her to bits.

Abby Goldsmith, Class of 2004

It is often said that character animation is “acting with a pencil.” I see fiction writing as “acting with a keyboard.” For me, it’s method acting. The best way to grow a novel plot (and make it satisfying) is to become every character in the story, even the minor ones, and view their problems from their points of view.

I don’t intentionally make my characters reflect me, but some of them undoubtedly do. Writing so many different characters often leads to insights. I can work on my real-life relationship problems through fiction. Often the best relationships (with spouses, parents, siblings, coworkers) have friction, and it’s hard to see why when you’re in the relationship. Sometimes the interaction between my characters leads to insights about myself, or about my family and friends.

Here’s a blog entry I wrote last year, from an insight that came from exploring the friction between two main characters:


Andrew Cooper, Class of 2010

I get conflicting feedback on whether I am good or bad at characterization. In my last submission at Odyssey I had hugely opposing views of my character all around the [critique] board–he was cool, he was evil, I hate him, I love him–which I interpret as realism. Some people have said my characters are realistic and act truly, including a NYT bestselling author. Others have said they’re flat as pancakes. It might depend on the character.

My process is to put myself in a character’s head, nothing more. I let him tell his own story. Hopefully it matches the story I wanted to write.

For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.


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