NSWC Lesson #3: Getting to Know Your Character

Though I’ve done similar lists when developing my characters, a few of the prompts used during our character trait brainstorming exercise were not only ones I hadn’t used before, but they were also enlightening.

What is your character’s most prized possession?

There may not ever be a chance to reveal this in story, but I still think it’s helpful to know. Does s/he value gold and jewels? A mere trinket? A place? An idea? What a person is willing to fight for is very character revealing.

What is a lie your character recently told?

Everyone lies. People lie on average four times a day. We lie to our bosses, our lovers, our selves. And what people hide is often more revealing that what they show.

We all think about what our characters look like, their mannerisms and ticks, but in order to write compelling characters, we must show who a character is—which is more than a sum of his or her traits.

What’s important is to make them part of the scene rather than reveal them through exposition.

Some writing tips are so basic, it can seem unnecessary to say. But those are the ones I think it’s important to constantly revisit.

In getting to know characters, it’s important to assess what they want.

What are your character’s big ticket wants?

Without an overarching goal propelling your character forward, there is no story.

But every scene can’t be about main goal. Still, it has to have a conflict.

What are your character’s small ticket wants?

Because sometimes, we just have to go to the bathroom. The example of how to create tension in a scene when the focus is a small ticket want was the opening scene of Buffalo ’66. Vincent Gallo’s character has been released from prison wearing a thin jean jacket into a snowstorm. Then he has to pee. There’s no dialogue or real “action” for several minutes. Yet we learn a lot about his character in those minutes. It’s easy to relate to a character who needs a heavier coat and has to pee.

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4 thoughts on “NSWC Lesson #3: Getting to Know Your Character

  1. Your nuts and bolts advice is so useful; it snapped me right to a scene I was working on and was the perfect prescription for being in that moment

  2. I was so excited when I could answer these questions quite well for my protagonist…but then quickly realized that wasn’t the case for many of my other characters.

    This was the nudge I needed to get back to the keyboard. Thanks, Molly!

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