Today, I’m going to share a few techniques to uncover the core of your character. Everything about your character can be boiled down to these central ingredients, and everything they do comes from this spot in their heart. Use these exercises to engage your senses and get out of your head!
1. Find Your Character’s Phrase
Start by sticking to what you know well as a writer: sentences. You’ll want to find one sentence or phrase that encompasses the character’s motivation. Having this one phrase to refer back to can help you know how your character will act in the story. In The Eleventh Trade, my main character Sami’s phrase is, “Do no harm.” Every decision he makes in the book is calculated to promote safety and reduce pain. This motivation sometimes holds Sami back when he doesn’t want to take action for fear of hurting someone. But he still has to take action–which does sometimes cause harm–so you get lots of lovely tension and conflict. Perfecto! Brainstorm these questions to find your character’s phrase:
- If my character had a thesis statement, what would it be?
- If my character was being marketed, what would their tagline say?
- What–above everything else–is my character trying to protect, preserve, or avoid?
If you’re lost for ideas, listen to any Disney movie’s main character solo. Usually at least one line in the song will specifically say that “thesis statement”–and if it’s not one specific line, you can paraphrase. A few examples:
- Just do it. (Nike)
- Nick Miller: Turning lemonade into lemons since 1981. (New Girl)
- With great power comes great responsibility. (Spiderman)
- I am vengeance. (Batman)
- You’ve got to be cruel to be kind. (Song lyric, Nick Lowe and Ian Gomm)
- Know where you’re from, know where you’re going. (Moana)
2. Find Their Word
Now that you have a phrase down, it’s time to take the challenge to the next level: everything about this character in one word. This one word may or may not be directly lifted from the phrase you settled on above. Usually, I find that this works best if the word you choose is the single most important thing to the character. However, this can (and in many cases should) be a thing that changes in the course of your story. Using Sami as an example, his phrase is Do no harm, but his word is Survive. Over the course of the story, Sami learns that survival isn’t the most important thing in the world. There’s more to living than just survival, after all. A few examples:
You can also use nouns (like the name of a loved one or an important object/culture/place). I tend to gravitate toward words that express the underlying emotion (so, instead of “Scotland” I might write down “home” or “belonging”), but if you find it more helpful to put a specific name down, go for it!
3. Find Their Image
Now that you have your character’s phrase, it’s time to find their image. I don’t mean casting your character as a real life person (though that’s an excellent technique, too). Find an image that captures the aesthetic of this character. Once you have your one word, this part of it becomes a tiny bit less difficult. Try to find images that capture that word. Bonus: This is a great image to put by your desk or on a story collage!
Note: the three photos in these examples are from Mary Claire Photo + Video.
Bonus: Using Your Other Senses
Here are a few other creative techniques to explore your characters using your other senses. Hearing:
- Make a playlist for your story (with lyrics or with a soundtrack)
- Choose a specific song for your main character (lyrics or instrumental)
- Compose your own character theme using instruments around you
- Use candles to create a mood or atmosphere
- Go to a perfume shop and look for the type your character might wear
- Pick a specific scent that matches your character’s personality and/or surroundings
- Cook traditional meals that match your character’s culture (bonus: this will also make your house smell lovely!)
- Decorate a birthday cake for your character (and eat it)
- Try (or create) your character’s favorite drink
- Go to a clothing store and shop for your character purely on how the fabric feels
- Visit environments your character likes and run your hands over everything
- Pay attention to the body language of people around you and how it makes you feel — then imagine how your character might receive it
You can do these exercises for as many characters as you like. Normally, I will do this level of brainstorming for any of my POV characters and occasionally my antagonist. If a character is particularly fuzzy to me–even if they’re a minor character–using one of these exercises can be a good way to solidify the gist of the person. These are just a few ideas, but feel free to share your own in the comments!