Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Ransacking Apartments (& Others Ways to Get to Know Your MC Better)

Can you say unconventional? That’s what I’m going with today as I offer insight on how to get better acquainted with your MC. Most of us novelists lead parallel lives, don’t we? Reality and that imaginary playground constantly entertaining our brain. We’ve become adept listeners during our conversations because half the time we’re acquiring snippets for our next scene.

Run with this as I propose eight methods to try to get closer to your MC. Understand, we regularly enter a make-believe realm that most non-writers couldn’t dream of conceptualizing. With this in mind, here are a few helpful hints on how to knock down the doors in order to come face to face with the one person in your novels you need to know best…

Ransack her apartment
An individual’s living space is a breeding ground for discovery. Does she have a green thumb or is she plant less because she’s afraid she’ll kill them all? Are her books alphabetized? Hospital corners? Pet hair everywhere? Curtains drawn or open? The possibilities are endless, if you’re only willing to break in and search her terrain.

Read her diary
I know, I know, a major no no for a parent. But we aren’t parents of our characters (well, not really). It only serves the novel more effectively if we spend time contemplating the inner life of our MC, wondering about her motives and goals. People write about their secret hopes and dreams. Where? In journals or diaries. So, have a crack (tackle a free write) and see what comes out.

Ask her mom about her
As if inventing a MC isn’t enough to make us certifiably on the cusp of crazy, now I’m asking you to go ahead and stick a mom (who doesn’t even show up in your novel) on your MC’s family tree. Go ahead. Moms change our diapers, know exactly how we’ll handle embarrassment or fear, they even know the exact locations of our birthmarks. So if your MC isn’t budging with private details, go to the source. Her mama!

Watch her cook dinner
Does she burn it? What kinds of pans does she own? If anything falls is it fair game for the dog to lick up? Is she alone? Does she talk on the phone when she cooks so she’ll feel less alone? Does she still set the table for two even though her husband died three years ago?

Eavesdrop on her phone conversation
I always used to study my oldest sister while she was on the phone. She wrapped our curly phone cord around her leg dozens of times when she was speaking with a boyfriend. Her voice shot up to a playground pitch when she was talking with her girlfriends. And I won’t even mention her hand gestures. I’m convinced I got to know her better by watching her on the phone. Try it with someone in real life. Then try it with your MC.

Make her take a swimming lesson
Ever seen Sleeping with the Enemy? That movie was the epitome of a woman’s reaction to water revealing a boatload about her character.

Send her on vacation
Where does she choose to go? Hiking in the mountains or an island with white sand and exotic birds? Does she bring anyone? How many days does she stay? And of course, how many shoes does she pack?

Put her on a tight budget
When she treats herself what does she buy? Her purchases say a lot about what’s important to her. Does she track her spending or go on frivolous shopping sprees?

I told you…unconventional. But it’s all part of creatively developing a story—establishing a firm grasp on the ins and outs of your MC. Questions like what’s her favorite color won’t always cut it when you’re aiming to get right to her heart.

Sometimes the best ways to the heart are the unexpected routes. What do you do when your main character is being inhibited?

*I referred to the MC mostly as her because I write women’s fiction
**recently got wind not all comments are showing up. I apologize if you’ve left one and it’s slipped into cyberspace. I’m checking on things and I’ve put Blogger on the naughty step. Hoping it will be back to play nice soon.
***photo by flickr


  1. Love this list. Must retweet. It's crazy how telling tiny details can how you mentioned setting the table for two, even though her husband died three years ago. Wow. I know so much about that character already.

  2. Oooh, great ideas!! When mine are inhibited it's important to bring in an extra character. I have a mom in my WIP that's going to help with this. *grin*

  3. I go the free writing direction. It is so much like reading an MC's diary. I always discover things about my character that I never knew. These are all great ideas!

  4. I love this. I've found that character sheets are a good start to getting to know my MC, but these are great ideas for going even deeper. Definitely something I've struggled with, so I'm sure your advice will help lots! :) Thanks, Wendy!

  5. Wendy, this is seriously great stuff! Thanks for sharing your creative self!

  6. Great post. Such a fun way to get to know your MC's! I love the idea of getting to read someone's diary and not having to feel guilty ;)

  7. Fabulous list! It's all about the details. Love how you laid it out for us.

  8. I love unconventional. I love the diary idea. Sometimes the only way I get to figure out my character is just to write scenes that they're in even if I don't keep them.

  9. Love this list. You've got to know the details like the back of your hand.

  10. Awesome suggestions, Wendy! I love the process of getting to know my characters. I want to know them so well that they're old friends by the time I finish their stories. If I've done my job well, I like to think readers would be able to answer some of the questions about my characters, too.

  11. Great ideas! I like to think about what my MC does in her free time - what hobbies she has.

  12. Great, great list, friend. Going to bookmark it.
    I like to discover my MC's birth order and then unpack all that info ...

  13. Great list. I think I might need to take my character swimming soon. I've never thought about how she'd respond to water.

    Thanks, Wendy!

  14. I'll throw her/him on my imaginary couch for a few head shrinking sessions. :)

  15. Hi!

    I found your blog via Joanne's and just had to tell you how much I love this post. It made me smile because my MC not only loves to swim (she even won medals for it in high school and college!) and cook, but the last book I wrote about her is entirely in diary format. I love your other suggestions, too, and will definitely be giving them consideration!

  16. These are great tips! I read somewhere yesterday about imagining your character's FB profile/page to get to know them better.

  17. This could unstick any writer who is stuck with a character they thought they knew but didn't. Great list, Wendy!

  18. Katie, Hey thanks for the RT. And yes, I feel for that lady already too.

    Jessica, Good thing that mom is coming on the scene to help. They can be such truth tellers, those mamas! ;)

    Susan, Free writing is a wonderful way to get in tune with a character. Glad it works well for you.

    Lindsay, I have a love/hate relationship with character sheets. I make them to keep track of certain things, but sometimes I feel like they box my MC in or limit her. I make sure to allow for so much growth when I write (for me and my characters).

    Lacie, Hey anytime!

    Joanne, Yep, that lack of guilt thing sure is nice!

    Jessica, One of my favorite things about the book Peace Like a River is the way the author worked with details. It made the book for me.

    Patti, Excellent point. Freeing ourselves to know we might nix a few scenes is a great way to go about it.

    Loree, It certainly helps authenticate the characters, doesn't it?

    Keli, Oddly, I do feel this and I wonder about them from time to time.

    Stacy, Hobbies? What are those? Only has been a little full around here and I miss those things called hobbies. Insightful to tap into this for our MCs though.

    Okaasan, Thanks for the encouragement!

    Julie, Now that's what I'm here for. Food for thought central around here. ;)

    Sarah, Wow, brilliant (I've always loved that word).

    Beth, Oh you so aren't kidding. I've learned how much in my own life that can impact a soul.

    Amy, I had fun with that one. And I continue to with my characters.

    Angie, Now that is brilliance!

    Shari, So glad you found your way here. Joanne rocks! And it's cool that your MC won medals for swimming in h.s. I'm a plug the nose type of gal myself. But that doesn't stop me from being on the water every chance I get.

    Coleen, Love that idea!

    Jill, The one in my WIP keeps evading me. This list helped me. I usually put stuff like this into practice before I put it out there.

    Appreciate the thoughts and feedback to this unconventional post. See a box. See my Tigger jumping out of it.

    Night all.
    Hoo hoo hoo hoo.
    ~ Wendy

  19. This is an awesome list, Wendy!! I've been thinking a lot about characterization lately! Trying to think of new and different ways to take my characters deeper. Love. This!

  20. These are some terrific unconventional ways to know a character! Love watching them cook or do anything when they don't think anyone is watching!

  21. This list is awesome. I'm printing it out and posting on my writing wall. Okay, I'm in the process of making my writing wall and this will go on it as one of the first things:)


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