Testing Your Characters

1.  While writing your short story or novel, you should be comfortable resorting to all sorts of communication.  Not just through conversation, but through answering machines, voicemails, emails, letters, texts, Facebook, etc.  This keeps your story realistic.  Of course, if you’re writing about the past, your characters can’t use all these methods, but you could resort to letters.  People used to write letters much more than they talked on the phone in the olden days.

Here’s an exercise you could try:

Choose one of your main characters and reveal him/her through several means of communication.  Write a note or brief letter.  What’s his/her voicemail greeting sound like?  How does he/she leave messages on other people’s phones?  Write an email and text to another character.

  • When you write this, it doesn’t have to be in paragraph form.  You can just label ‘Note/Letter’ then write it.  Label ‘His/Her Voicemail then write it, so on and so on.  It helps if you have an event or situation already in mind–maybe your characters like to gossip about current events.

2.  Pick two characters (main or supporting ones).  For your first one, only describe where they work.  What does the place look like?  What objects are in the room?  For the second person, describe a place where they relax–either at home, work, or at a hobby.  What objects are in the room?

  • This exercise helps you indirectly introduce your characters.  You get a feel for them by the way they arrange their surroundings, and by the way they treat their possessions.  It also reveals some character traits.  For instance, if your character is resourceful but have too much on their plate right now, make him/her have a messy office.  If she/he is a control freak, make the office or home spotless with every item in its correct spot.

3.  Another way to portray characters is by describing what they do (their work or hobby), and how they do it.  It will make your story realistic with people balancing their passions and responsibilities.

  • Working doesn’t have to be a 9-5 job.  If your character is unemployed, you could show them attempting to find a job through interviews, etc.  Or perhaps they are stay at home mom’s and dad’s–taking care of kids and the household is a job.  Maybe your characters aren’t old enough to work yet or just retired.  Working could mean a hobby and/or interests.  Also, being a student whether in school or at college is a job all in itself.

4.  Pick two or three characters (main or supporting ones) and have them meet, interact with each other.  Perhaps they’re roommates or classmates, or a student and teacher.  Imagine them hanging out.  If your characters are total strangers, have them meet at a car accident, flirt in a bar, or fight for a seat on public transportation.  Choose anyplace–doesn’t matter if it’s normal or an unusual place.

  • If your characters are total opposites, all the better.  It can bring tension and conflict.  Let them talk; they should be themselves.  This could mostly be a talk scene, like a play.  Because conversations between two people liven up when a third person joins sometimes, this is why the third character is optional.

Those four exercises help you test your characters to see if they can come alive in your mind.  You have to be interested enough in order to create them.

Also during the testing stage, you can see if a certain character fits or if you want to create someone totally different.  Not all characters will excite or give you enough passion to invest in them.  It is best to find out in this stage instead of wasting time incorporating them into your novel, then feeling lackluster about it.

Creating characters is my favorite part of the creative writing process.  I always spend the longest time in this area by getting to know the people in my story on a personal, intimate level.

  • I like to think of their tone of voice (do they have an accent?  Do they talk like a snob or surfer?); I like to think of their catchphrases.  Are they approachable in other’s eyes, or are they standoffish?  I spend the majority of my note-taking putting my characters through different obstacles to see how they’d handle it.  I practice with mock journal entries, fake Facebook profiles (not actually creating dozens on the website; I mean drawing them in my notebook), taking them to a karaoke bar, etc.  All these ways, I’m getting to understand my characters better, so when it’s time to begin writing my story, I’m set.

For all the writers out there, is there a certain routine you do to get to know your characters?

Keep smiling,

Yawatta Hosby