6 Ways to Keep in Character (without character sheets)
by Meg Trast
The following advice applies largely to fiction, but I can think of circumstances it’s relevant in non-fiction as well. For instance, while writing a memoir or historical account, it’s important to capture character voice and to keep your characters consistent.
Each person in your story should have a voice that is slightly, uniquely their own. A lot of common tricks and tips exist to help make your characters look, feel, and read like real, fleshed-out people. The problem I’ve encountered is this: much of those tricks involve character sheets…which I emphatically oppose.
By no means do I think my way is the only way, but if you’re anti-character-sheet like me then you should find this list useful. If you know any tricks I left off, feel free to tell me about them in the comments!
1. Immerse yourself in the character.
This is potentially my favorite thing to do, because it allows me to “see” fictional characters I’ve created interact with my world. For a day or two, focus on just one character. Ask yourself how they would respond in certain situations that arise in your day-to-day life. I’ve been using this method to better understand the main character in my current WIP, and I found it’s actually fundamentally changed some parts of the book that felt weak.
Barista taking forever to make your coffee: how would Protag react?
Stuck in traffic: how would Protag react?
Bad work interaction? Great work interaction? Karaoke? The pool? The gym?
Imagine them in whatever situation you’re currently undergoing. Even if they would never realistically encounter it in your book, you’re gaining a deeper understanding of their values and reactions.
2. Write them a short story.
Short stories were something I started doing for fun, later a tool I used to unblock myself when in a creative slump, and the pinnacle of my FanFic stint (you’ll pry the links from my cold, dead hands). You can use a writing prompt, write them into your favorite TV show, or create any setting that helps you see into their heads.
3. Create a catch phrase.
Be careful with this one – catch phrases should be basically eliminated following the first draft (unless you’re going for something a little more silly or cheesy, in which case go nuts). Give your character a catch phrase, and then analyze it. What’s the etymology? What’s the source? When/why did they start saying it, and how does that affect the rest of their dialogue? Just like the first two, this trick is about delving into and understanding your character. Even write the catch phrase multiple times into your first draft! Just make sure you take it out during editing.
4. Base them on an actor or existing character.
I’m highly fond of doing this. Where I lack in character sheets, I make up with dozens of headshots saved into a file on my laptop. In fact, oftentimes I’m inspired to create my characters after seeing an actor deliver an excellent performance in a film or television show. Basing a character on an actor gives you visual and auditory clues in the real world to stay grounded. Close your eyes and picture that person saying/doing what you’ve just written your character doing. I find this trick works best with dialogue. If I can read it and imagine it being said in the actor’s voice, I feel pretty good about the line. I also take cues from their body language and use them to convey emotion through my own narrative voice.
This one seems like a no-brainer, and I’ll allude to this as well in a post next month, but it’s vital you self-edit before letting anyone else touch your manuscript. It doesn’t have to be super thorough with attention to technical details. The purpose of self-editing is to make sure your voice is clear, and this includes the voice of your characters. When you read something back, the pacing is different (often much faster) than when you’re drafting. Re-reading and self-editing help you find the mistakes that only you can catch. In fact, I find it’s important to self-edit between each step of the process. Before you hand it to your alpha reader, before you hand it to betas, and definitely before you hand it to your editor (who will likely make the most changes to your actual prose). Consider the character’s consistency when accepting or rejecting feedback. Which brings me to a nearly-contradictory point…
6. Listen to your feedback partners.
If a beta reader tells you Character A did something that seems “unlike them,” analyze it. Don’t dismiss that outright. If you know the reasoning behind their actions, it’s possible that you didn’t craft the exposition in a manner that naturally led to the action. Conversely, maybe that action IS out of character. Decide how out-of-character you want that to be, and adjust the circumstances of the narrative to cause your character to behave that way. Or change the action to be more consistent with the character. It’s tempting to outright dismiss this kind of feedback, because our knee-jerk response is, “But it makes sense!” And by no means should you make those types of alterations only because a feedback partner said so. You should, though, consider every angle when reviewing reader feedback, and ask if there is merit.
Thank you so much for reading today! I hope this list helps with your current and upcoming projects. If you have additional questions or would like to request clarification, please feel free to reach out. What tips and tricks do you have for creating and keeping consistent characters? Let me know in the comments!
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