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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Getting into Your Character’s Head

Please welcome guest blogger Laura Kaye

The feedback I receive from readers and reviewers that most warms my heart is praise of my characters. It’s my characters who speak to me first, who tell me what their story is [plot, GMC], how it would best be told [point of view, verb tense, genre], and when and where it takes place [setting].

For me, everything starts with characters, and what I tend most to write are character-driven stories (as opposed to plot-driven stories). By character-driven stories, I mean those stories that focus on the inner world of the character. What drives him, what scares him, what he most yearns for above all else, and what it is that makes him think he can’t have it—these become central to the plot and to shaping how the characters react to the action elements of the plot.

But how do you get into your character’s head in a way that lets you create compelling characters people will remember, care about and root for?

To answer that, consider the blank character sketch below. I almost never plot (hello, fellow pantsers! LOL), but I almost always write out a character sketch like this one:




Unique Physical Traits:

Where born:

Describe childhood:

Where lives now:


Why holds that job:

Overall goal in story*:

What stands in his way of achieving this goal*:

What does he stand to lose, if not successful*:

Greatest flaw or fault:

Greatest strength:

Scars (internal or external):






What triggers fears:



Why hasn’t he achieved that dream:

Hardest thing to sacrifice:

Biggest sacrifice ever made:

Closest friend he ever had:

What happened to that person:

Closest current relationship:

Three words your character would use to describe himself:

What does he praise about himself:

What would others praise about him:

What would be the best situation your character could be in:

What would be the worst situation your character could be in:

Undeniably, plot and character are intertwined in any great story, but only the three starred questions on the character sketch explicitly relate to the action and forward motion of the plot. The rest tell you how the character thinks about the plot and how he’ll approach it and try to achieve it. Now, a more plot-driven writer might argue that what the character hates, or what secrets he has, or what sacrifice he’s made could all relate to the plot—and they’d be right. But, for our purposes here, those kinds of traits are fundamental to who this character is as a person. What their emotional make-up is. What’s going on inside their brain and heart that leads them to make one choice over another. To write memorable characters readers love, the author has to know the character’s emotional landscape inside and out. Some of what you come to learn about your character might never even make it into the story—but you as the author need to know it nonetheless.

You should consider your first pass through a sketch like this as a first draft. Complete it and tape it over your writing space. If you’re like me, you will learn more and more about your character as you write. As you learn new things that go deeper and deeper into your character, add them to the sketch.

For example, your first time through, you might respond to “Hate” with something like, “Hates the Evil Vampire Lord, who killed his whole human family and turned him into a vampire against his will.” Okay, great. That tells us a lot about the bad things that happened to your character in the past and what has injured him. But notice it doesn’t tell you how that made him feel. If you go deeper, you might add that he felt guilt for surviving when his family didn’t, grief at their loss, humiliation that he couldn’t stop the attack, and despair that he’ll never have a chance at family again. You might learn that what he really hates is himself, and that’s way, way deeper than hating the villain—because after all, villains are easy to hate.

For me, character sketches that I continue to flesh out are a great way to get into my characters’ heads, and are a great tool for helping to create three-dimensional, emotionally deep and contradictory characters who are relatable, sympathetic, likeable (even if they don’t like themselves), and able to rise to the occasion when the chips are down. Compelling characters are key to giving your readers a satisfying emotional payoff, so finding ways to create the most memorable characters you can will lead to writing gold.

If you already use character sketches, what do you feel they do for you in your writing? If not, what questions do you have about this approach? I’d also be curious to hear your take on character-driven versus plot-driven writing, and how that relates to your own stories.

Thanks so much for reading,

Laura Kaye

A multi-published author of paranormal, contemporary and erotic romance, Laura Kaye’s hot, heartfelt stories are all about the universal desire for a place to belong. Laura is the author of the bestselling contemporary romance and award-nominated HEARTS IN DARKNESS and the bestselling and award-winning paranormal romance FOREVER FREED (NJRW Golden Leaf Award for Best Paranormal of 2011), as well as an erotic romance novella, JUST GOTTA SAY. Her fourth book, contemporary fantasy romance NORTH OF NEED, is the first in the 4-book Hearts of the Anemoi series. Laura lives in Maryland with her husband, two daughters, and cute-but-bad dog, and appreciates her view of the Chesapeake Bay every day. Website | Blog | Facebook | Twitter | Newsletter SignUp

WANT TO WIN NORTH OF NEED? The North of Need Book Launch Blog Tour runs through November 20. A giveaway everyday!

North of Need

Her tears called a powerful snow god to life, but only her love can grant the humanity he craves...

Desperate to escape agonizing memories of Christmas past, twenty-nine-year-old widow Megan Snow builds a snow family outside the mountain cabin she once shared with her husband, realizing too late that she's recreated the very thing she'll never have.

Called to life by Megan's tears, snow god Owen Winters appears unconscious on her doorstep in the midst of a raging blizzard. As she nurses him to health, Owen finds unexpected solace in her company and unimagined pleasure in the warmth of her body, and vows to win her heart for a chance at humanity.

Megan is drawn to Owen's mismatched eyes, otherworldly masculinity, and enthusiasm for the littlest things. But this Christmas miracle comes with an expiration--before the snow melts and the temperature rises, Megan must let go of her widow's grief and learn to trust love again, or she'll lose Owen forever.


Sara said...

Great advice! I'm definitely going to use that sketch. I have one now that I use, but this one is much more detailed. And I never even considered revising as I write. That then would make an excellent tool during the revisions stage where I flesh out my characters even more.

Thanks, Laura, and good luck!

Laura Kaye said...

Awesome, Sara! Glad you found it useful! And I hope the sketch works for you! :)

ReneeRearden said...

I so agree with the character sketch being a great tool. Mine is not as detailed...something I usually add to later. (Yes, hello fellow pantser!) I will definitely expand my initial character sketch and hope that builds in layers as I write...before I hit the revision stage.

Great post!

Rachel Harris said...

Great sketch!

I definitely use character sketches. I'm a HUGE plotter, but I always start with my characters, filling out forms like this and really getting to know them. That then gives me my plot more times than not. First discovering their fears, and then having them live and overcome it. Knowing their current emotional state to build that character arc around. :-)

Louise Behiel said...

what a great blog, Laura. It speaks to what I do and has put words to my process. My beginning character sketches are pretty vague. I know what his problem is and what the solution is. and I know GMC and a physical description of the hero, so I don't have to keep going back and editing.

your character sketch sheet is great. I'm going to give it a whirl with my next book.

Laura Kaye said...

@Renee--LOL our writing process has a lot in common, I see! Awesome!

@Rachel--I like that a character sketch can be useful to both pantsers and plotters! Thanks for commenting!

@Louise--oh, that's cool to hear! Glad you found it helpful!

Marian L said...

I always use a character sketch before I write one word. Then I transfer it onto a dry eraser board so that is in front of me while I write. I even do this for secondard characters that will make more than one appearance in the book. I look forward to reading your book. Marian

Lisa Kessler said...

That's a great list Laura!!! :)

I'm a panster too and my favorite part of starting a new book is getting to know the new characters and seeing what makes them tick...

Good luck with the new release!

Lisa :)

Shelley Munro said...

I think I'm a lone voice since I don't use character sketches or outlines. I'm a total pantser and learn about my characters as I write. I usually start knowing my characters' conflicts but not much else. Of course my method requires rewriting at times, but it works for me :)

All the best with your new release. It sounds wonderful.

Laura Kaye said...

I'm really a pantser too, Shelley, but I always feel I need to nail the characters down a little more solidly before I can even start writing. I love hearing about people's different approaches to the beast of writing! LOL