Three Ways to Discover Who Your Characters Really Are

Don't "create" characters; get to know them instead. John Jamison has used the power of story in various roles—from pastor to brand development consultant—and he has some unique methods for getting to know his characters.
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Don't "create" characters; get to know them instead. John Jamison has used the power of story in various roles—from pastor to brand development consultant—and he has some unique methods for getting to know his characters. 

During a recent visit with a book club, one of the members asked me, “How do you create your characters?” I gave the answer I usually give that goes something like, “I don’t really create them. To me, they are real, and I just spend my time trying to get to know them and write down what they say and do.” The person responded the way most folks have to that answer, with a polite smile that said, “Well, if you don’t want to tell me, okay then, don’t tell me.”

My answer is true, at least to me. I don’t consciously spend much time “thinking” about a character in my stories. My mind just kind of ‘sees’ them. But the more I thought about it, maybe a better answer to the question would be to describe a few “unthinking” things I do that helps me get to know my characters. These are especially fun when that character is my antagonist:, someone I sometimes don’t really want to get to know all that well.

John (J.B.) Jamison is the author of the Emily Graham series

John (J.B.) Jamison is the author of the Emily Graham series

The news

Yesterday, I sat down to look at the morning news sites, but in my mind, I sat down as my antagonist. I read the articles the way I imagined he would read them, and I watched and listened to his reactions. I felt anger and argued about things that John would not feel anger about, and felt joy about things John would not feel joy about. It must have worked, because at one point my wife walked past and asked, “What the heck is wrong with you this morning?”

In Public

On a few occasions I have spent an entire morning or much of day as my character. I have stood in line behind that woman digging through her purse to find a coupon and responded as my character would have responded. Of course I respond only in my imagination. I’m trying to understand a character for a story, not get banned from a store or get locked up. The antagonist in Disbelief, my upcoming thriller, had what I thought was a very creative, but not in any way appropriate, response to that woman’s digging. Interestingly, the character found a way to vent that frustration during the next morning’s writing.

Personality Testing

This one takes more time, but it always helps me get to know my character’s personality, which is what drives much of what they are going to say and do. I visit a website called 16personalities.com and I complete the short personality inventory as my character would complete it. A key is to not stop and “think” about any of the questions, but just select the first answer you believe your character would choose. The information you get back is a treasure chest.

Online Communications

On those occasions when I have a question about a character I don’t know the answer to, I send my character an email asking them the question before I go to bed at night. I just send it to my address, but I put their name in the subject. The next morning when I see that email, I open is as my character and write the response. I don’t think, I just respond. I am always surprised at how well this works.

I sometimes sit down as my character, read through the posts on my Facebook page, and then write the responses my character would write. This one usually brings out things that surprise me. But the one VERY IMPORTANT RULE is DO NOT POST what your character writes. Unless you are willing to create conversations you really don’t want to have, write down what your character would post, but DO NOT POST it! Trust me on this one.

If we really pushed the issue, I guess you could probably say that my original answer is just wrong, and I do think a lot about how I create my characters. But I still don’t see it that way. I spend time trying to “be inside” my characters, not “think about” them. So, the characters I get to know don’t feel “created” to me. Discovered, maybe. They are very real and are taking part in an adventure that I am given the privilege of watching and reporting. I think I’ll stick with my first answer, but maybe just throw in one or two examples I’ve mentioned here from now on.

If you decide to try any of these, the only difficult part is to turn off the thinking. Take a moment to crawl inside what you know of your character and then go. Don’t let the thinking return until your character tells you they are done. Mine usually look at me and then just go back to whatever they were doing in the story we are writing.

To me, my characters are real people, and that is a good thing—sometimes. Right now, for example, I have this feeling that my very real antagonist is standing in the room behind me here, suggesting that I need to get back to writing his story. And from what I’ve learned about this guy, I really need to go …

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