A struggle we face as writers is finding out who our characters are. We all know about the “one hundred question” exercises and all that jazz, but I’ve never been one for that. Really, I’ve always been repelled by “getting to know you” games. Such as the ones you play when you go to a new school or start a new class and we all have to go around the circle stating our favorite colors and movies and greatest fears and are expected to be long-time friends at the end of it. That’s not how you get to know someone, I mean REALLY get to know someone. There’s something so robotic about that.
I’ve tried doing the hundred question exercise before, and as far as I remember from the one time I did it I couldn’t get past five questions. It’s boring and monotonous. The way I see it, as writers, you should know everything there is to know about your characters. If you’re having trouble giving them purpose or personality, then they’re fake. You need to drop them fast. You’re a writer. You’re a God of the blank page. What you say goes. What you know is. What you don’t isn’t.
Having said that, how do we get to know our characters? I’ve a very simple answer.
You could be starting a story, introducing your main protagonist and you’re laying out all the details the reader needs to have to get along. A reason you might run into trouble in this case is because it’s too much of a stage. You’re putting too much effort into having the character look good for one particular moment so we can hopefully find some common ground. It’s sort of like the “getting to know you” games. You put on a face and state the basic facts so everybody knows the necessary details to get by when school gets going.
Getting to know you: “Oh, my favorite color is red. I’m an only child. I hate sports. Be my friend.”
Character intro: “Todd’s favorite color is red. He’s an only child with no friends, and he hates sports.”
That’s not how I got to know my best friends. With friends it’s a sort of “learn as you go” way of living, and so it should be the same with characters in a story.
It’s more interesting to catch characters on the fly – in the middle of the act. Maybe we meet them the day before anything interesting happens, when they’re exposed and vulnerable to the narrative, and not making a presentation of themselves. Maybe then we have something more like:
“Todd sat alone on the seesaw. He was wearing a red t-shirt that day, but then most of his shirts were red. He looked over at the soccer field where a group of kids were playing. He only felt empty, and maybe a little contempt.”
One of the greatest lessons I learned from an English teacher of mine was “show, don’t tell.” Side with description rather than detail. In this case I say take it a step further: side with the prior rather than the present. Don’t tell me why a character is a certain way, show it, and moreover show it in a random act divert from the story. It’s a little more genuine that way.