Getting Inside a Character’s Head

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I have just finished the first part of an online short story I’m posting on my website which requires a change of perspective. Both Consequences of Sin and The Serpent and The Scorpion incorporated a distinctly Ursula-esque POV but in the new story I have delved inside the head of another character – namely Lord Wrotham – which has opened up all sorts of possibilities (I can’t help but grin as I write that).

It does, however, also raise some challenges which go to the very heart of character development. You see I have only ever viewed him the way Ursula views him. Although I know his background (I created it after all), in many ways he’s as much of a mystery to me as he is to Ursula. Hence the fun in writing the story…and for those of you who have read The Serpent and The Scorpion, the story also offers some tantalizing clues as to what led to his arrest…

When I develop characters some of them appear pretty much fully formed in my head, whereas others take a while to ‘ferment’, as I ponder their past and what has made them who they are. Now I know many writers take offence at the prospect of characters doing unexpected things (aren’t we the ones in control after all?!) but I do find that many times my characters start behaving in ways I never intended – in a way rewriting themselves as the book progresses. For me, that’s all part of the fun of character discovery and development.

So how do writers flesh out their characters and what did it take for me to write this story from another character’s perspective?…You’d think it would be a methodical, well-organized process but instead I found myself:

  1. Rummaging through my old electronic files for the backgrounder I developed for Lord Wrotham then realizing that as I wrote both Consequences of Sin and The Serpent and The Scorpion I basically discarded most of it and reinvented him as I went along (bugger!!)
  2. Rewriting the bloody backgrounder from scratch only to find a couple of minor characters unexpectedly popping up in his past (Bugger! Bugger!) which meant I had to take a closer look at them as well
  3. As I am also working on the third Ursula Marlow book, Unlikely Traitors, I then sifted through that draft manuscript to check his story and then started playing the ‘what if’ game….(triple bugger, No!!!)

So what happened at the end of this process? Well, I decided I liked pottering around in Lord Wrotham’s head…In fact, I was discovering he was one complicated sexy man…then my husband stopped talking to me.

I guess that’s what happens when characters take over.

So how do you approach character development – are you better organized than me? Do you have it all figured out? Or do your characters, just occasionally, take you by surprise? Are there any writers whose characters you wish they would explore more – characters you wish you could get inside their head and have a bit of a rummage?

18 thoughts on “Getting Inside a Character’s Head

  1. My characters always take me by surprise. Especially when I think I have them all figured out. Sometimes characters appear out of nowhere, too. In one scene in the book I’m writing now, my protagonist goes into a bar and all of a sudden this one guy calls her over to his table. Turns out he’s a good friend of hers. He’s one of the best characters in the book and he pretty much created himself.

  2. I generally steal my characters directly from successful novels peope have forgotten about, or haven’t read since high school. For instance my new protagonist is Sherluck Homeby, a pipe-smoking detective whose side kick T-Tommy Watsun is a drunken, plumber with advanced degrees in rocket science and brain surgery. Together they fight crime in Shaw, Mississippi. I haven’t found a publisher yet, but it’s a cinch. I’m also working on Tozan, the story of a boy raised by snakes in the swamps of Louisiana and is discovered by Lord Portnoy (on Safari looking for Loons) who complains constantly about the lack of butcher shops that sell virgin liver.

    Just kidding. My characters evolve or devolve as I write. I simply imagine who they should be and where they came from, and throw in a few limps, gouged eyes, missing teeth, and sprinkle in a few traumatic experiences.

    Sorry, but I’m snowed in.

  3. Because I collaborate, my co-author and I have to flesh out our main character(s) in great detail before and during our writing process. That doesn’t mean we get surprised and even blindsided at times. Although we write the story, there have been times when a character defied our wishes and set a new course.

    For me the most fun are the secondary cast of characters. Because their on-page time is shorter than the protag or antag, they can be a hoot to write.

    In 731, we had 4 old, retired KGB agents enter the story in a couple of scenes. They were so strong that they forced their way back into the story at the conclusion and played a major role in the resolution. Who knew?

  4. John – do I detect some cabin fever?? I’ll send some characters over to sort you out:) Glad to hear Joyce and Joe that your characters take over and demand extra air time too!

  5. Normally my characters evolve and change in a hazy, I’m-getting-to-know-them kind of way, and I keep messy notes. I also let them grow and change. This technique has bitten me in the a** more than once, for example when I changed one consonant in Kate’s beloved kitty’s name in Book Two of The Fat City Mysteries. (Fortunately my sharp-eyed editor and copyeditor caught the mistake before publication).

    Now I’ve found a cool new feature in Liquid Story Binder called The Character Generator. It lets you build “Character Dossiers.” I don’t know how complicated these dossiers can get yet, but I know before I create another cat, I’ll know down to the brand of friggin’ kitty litter it uses. Does it like pine or clay? I’ll never be wrong again!

    But what if my system crashes and I LOSE my character dossiers? Oh the humanity! Maybe I should stick to index cards.

    I dunno. Now I’m stumped.

  6. If you read CS Lewis book “The Magcician’s Nephew”, the part at the end where the children witness the creation of the world of Narnia, where the creatures are erupting from the ground…that’s where my characters come from. They just burst from the soil and walk into my head.

    OK, that’s kinda dramatic but close to it. They simply appear. I have very few notes as to characters, but also only four books thus far. One thing that helped to understand the users is that I wrote a series of short stories several of which were back story to my major characters. Also, all of my books have strong backstory segments that help the reader (and myself) get into the whys and whens of the of the main characters lives.

    Although I must admit I like John’s method, cabin fever generated or not…it’s like a parody that half the population will take as something new and serious.

    Kathryn, as an IT guy I have a piece of advice for you.


    Keep a copy on your hard drive, and an external hard drive, and a USB drive, and a CDROM, and Print it into a binder…maybe even a safe-deposit box at a Swiss Bank in the Caribbean (just not one with a board of directors located in the Peoples Republic of China…your stuff will get pirated).

  7. One thing that helped to understand the users

    That line should read “helped to understand the characters”

    Sorry. I am an IT guy…or a drug dealer…

  8. Ooooh I like the sound of the character dossier but again – what happens if it crashes?!! I stick to the tried and true disorganized post it and index card method – but hey, I lose those too!

  9. Oh and I do back up Basil – fear drives me on that front but I’m always a little out of step with my characters – those darn post it notes! I add lots of backstory in my novels but I do have a tendency to forget some of the details. No doubt mummy induced dementia…

  10. I use:

    1. Voice journal: free form doc of the character talking, until I start to “hear” them. They give me a lot of b.g. that way.

    2. A picture from Google images, so I can see them.

    3. I’ve never been able to use long dossiers, so I have a 1 pager with the most essential info on it.

    I love it when the characters do surprising things. I had a wife in one novel who was supposed to leave the house, to get out of the danger to her husband. But she wouldn’t leave, try as I might. So she stayed and the story got stronger.

  11. James – I love the voice journal idea. I’d never thought of that. As for images well I have my cast of leading men:) that serve me well when I day dream about Lord Wrotham (just don’t tell my husband!)

  12. Some characters come to me fully-formed, and others I have a hard time pinning down. I’m finding that as the books progress, I need to keep a file of index cards with physical descriptions so I don’t change a character’s eye color three books in.
    And as far as them surprising you, in my latest book after all of the characters have been spread out across the country doing different things for the bulk of the plot, suddenly a hundred pages from the finish I had them all in one room. It was pretty clear where most of them were going from there, but one in particular presented a problem. I hated the thought of writing her out of the storyline, and apparently she did too since in the next scene she hopped on a plane to Phoenix and promptly stole the plot. Funny when that happens.

  13. Oh, and Kathryn- I’m terrible about remembering to backup, so I finally signed up for Carbonite, an online system that does it for you automatically, every day. A few weeks after I signed up for it my whole hard drive crashed and presto…I had everything back as soon as it was fixed. It’s a lifesaver.

  14. Michelle – it’s funny how some characters refuse to exit. I love Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books in which he has hilarious ‘book’ outtakes in which characters cut loose. I sometimes imagine what my own characters are doing ‘between the pages’! Am I sad or what…

  15. I have one of those hard drive stick thingies as a backup, but I don’t trust it worth a darn. I think I’ll check out that Carbonite thing you mentioned, Michelle. I want to press a button and have everything reappear just as I left it!

  16. As a reader, it’s the characters that keep me reading… or coming back to read more books. I suspect that the same “depth” that causes an author’s characters to take control of how their stories develop is also what makes them come alive for me as a reader. Please, Claire, persuade them to continue “taking over.” (and now I have to spend some money and buy all your books so I can find out what happens to Lord Wrotham.

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