Get That To-The-Bone Feel For Your Characters

by James Scott Bell

Some years ago, Kill Zone emeritus Robert Gregory Browne wrote this:

If my lead character is a divorced father of three who finds himself unwittingly involved in a conspiracy to overthrow the government, the first thing I ask myself when approaching a scene (even though I’m happily married and wouldn’t know a conspiracy if it jumped up and bit me) is this: how would I react in this situation?

Then I add the color (read: attitude/emotion). How would I react, if… I was a self-centered bastard… a no-nonsense cop… an officious political hack. And I apply this technique to every character I write.

In short, I’m like a method actor playing all of the parts. By using myself and a healthy dose of imagination, I can approach characterization from the inside out. And once I’m able to get into the skin of my characters, it’s much, much easier to create someone whom I, and hopefully the audience, can identify with.

As a former thespian myself, I’ve used (and teach) acting prep techniques for writers. This is the simplest, and perhaps the best one: first, be yourself.

Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous (1937)

That is the sum and substance of the philosophy my favorite actor of all time, Spencer Tracy, used. He didn’t go for any of the fancy schools of method acting. He said he always started by imagining what it would feel like if he were a taxi driver….or a priest….or a Portuguese fisherman. That gave him attitude and emotion. From there it was just a matter of knowing his lines and listening to the other actors.

Back when I was lawyering I edited a little newsletter called Trial Excellence. It was a monthly dedicated to the lawyers who actually go to court and present cases in front of juries. In that role I had the opportunity to interview some of the top trial lawyers in the country. One of them was Don C. Keenan, who told me:

My rule of thumb is that I feel very strongly that the plaintiff’s lawyer, to be successful with the jury, you literally have to make the jury walk a mile in your client’s moccasins. They cannot be spectators. They cannot view their role as being a referee or a mediator. They literally have to fully understand and feel—and by feel, I mean, to-the-bone feel—what your client feels. So they then become an advocate in the jury room for you and not just some referee. As such, the only way that you can get strangers to walk a mile in your client’s moccasins is by you, the lawyer, not only walking a mile in the client’s moccasins, but sleeping in the same house, and washing the dishes, and going to the doctor’s visits with them, and living it with them. I’m a fanatic when it comes to up close and personal with your client.

I like that: to-the-bone feel. Spend time imagining yourself in your characters’ world, watching and listening to them, even being them. Do this until you feel your character in your very bones. Put that on the page and your readers will become participants, not just spectators.

What do you do to get that to-the-bone feeling for your characters?

NOTE: This post is adapted from my upcoming book Power Up Your Fiction (available for preorder). In other news, the book was kindly mentioned in The Saturday Evening Post!

37 thoughts on “Get That To-The-Bone Feel For Your Characters

  1. ❖ “What do you do to get that to-the-bone feeling for your characters?”
    ❦ Tricky question, because much of that process is unconscious. Jung once said, “The question arises: ‘Has the Unconscious consciousness of its own’?” The answer can only be ‘yes.’ And that part of the mind not only can create stories, it can act them out. Stockholm Syndrome is no mystery. A captive who can pretend at the deepest level to be one with those who have taken him/her prisoner, is more likely to survive. It’s an evolution-derived skill.
    ❦ That same skill lets us build realistic characters within our mind. We can enhance that skill by taking acting courses and by reading, watching films, people-watching and living life. (No one can really understand Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, unless they’ve lost their own “Allie.”)
    ❦ Understanding psychology helps us assemble characters. Most human behavior is driven by wants and needs and by elemental forces: (1) love of the familiar, (2) fear of the unfamiliar, (3) unresolved trauma, (4) displaying the inmost self (including emotions), (5) mental archetypes, and (6) reactions to triggering of the brain’s autonomous emergency network (“Guardienne”).
    ❦ Decide what your character loves, fears, wants, and needs. Create his trauma history, his most powerful archetype(s), and what triggers him. What parts of his inmost self are demanding to be revealed? How will he do that?
    ❦ Internal Drama results when the elemental forces conflict with each other and the MC’s needs.
    ❦ External Drama results from real-world conflicts and the MC’s wants.

    • Good notes, J. When I was an actor in New york, I used to hang out in Times Square (that’s when it was really seedy) and just people watch. Boy, did you ever get across section of humanity then!

      I also got really good at Skee Ball.

      • Thanks, JSB. In one week, three people who knew I was writing filmscripts advised me to study acting. I took a hint and took two courses. It’s good exercise for character creation. It also got me an IMDb page.

        I’m not sure about the Skee-Ball.

  2. Slip inside their skin, think their thoughts, champion their arguments, walk their walk, talk their talk, listen to their music, taste their food, cheer for their victories, feel their heartbeat, their pulse, their pain and sorrow, the blood coursing through their veins. I could go on and on. 😉

  3. Excellent. This is why I always tell students to write the first draft fast. Don’t waste time editing it too much. You don’t know your characters until you’ve spent 50-60,000 words with them. How you thought they might think, feel, act, and talk in the first few chapters will likely be different by the time you get to chapter 50. When you go back for the first rewrite, and begin slogging back through those first few chapters, you’ll often tell yourself she wouldn’t say that, he wouldn’t do that. It takes time to know your characters and only then can you truly create them.

    • Good point, Doug. You’ve got to allow yourself living and breathing room with characters. That’s why I don’t like those massive questionnaires that some people tell you to fill out before you start writing. Some key questions, yes, to get you started. But then it’s more a matter of feel as scenes unfold.

  4. Terrific post, Jim. I’m really looking forward to this book.

    For me, with new characters it’s like meeting someone for the first time, taking in those initial impresses, and then listening to what they say, and how they say it. Then I dig deeper, and learn more about them. If I’m stuck with a character, I’ll do what I do when I’m stuck with a story: step back and think about who they are, what they want, *why* they want it, and what their life was and is like.

    • That’s why I like to do a Voice Journal with my characters, Dale.. A free-form document where they are talking to me, until they begin to take on a life of their own.

  5. Exactly like “real” people I meet, my characters reveal themselves through what they say and do as the story unfolds around us in real time. I trust that, and I’m never disappointed with the results.

  6. Excellent post, JIm. Don C. Keenan is one smart lawyer.

    I go for the wound, something in the character’s past that shapes the way they behave towards other people, how they work, if they love or don’t or can’t love, trust or can’t trust,

    Then I put them in a life situation that’s unfair and unjust, which most people understand and empathize with.

    A major character in my upcoming thriller Deep Fake Double Down is a 39-year-old, biracial female prison guard who’s good at every past job she ever had but gets fired b/c of her chip-on-the-shoulder attitude. No family, no friends. She finds her niche working at the prison b/c “nobody expects mints on their pillow and kiss-ass customer service.” Then the corrupt warden sets her up by creating deep fake videos that show her committing crimes that he wants covered up.

    She’s unlikeable and unsympathetic but unjustly accused. Plus she has a past secret wound that haunts her. Digging into those elements allowed me to get into the bones of someone who’s quite different from me.

    • I love the concept of the wound, too, Debbie, resulting in what I call “the ghost” which haunts the present. That gives us a lot of interesting behavior that the reader will be drawn in by, and remains something of a mystery until revealed.

  7. My approach with characters is always how do I get every character to express my personal political and social beliefs through dialogue in every scene?

    Just kidding! Your piece here is fascinating because I’ve been curious if such a bool existed: method acting for writers. I think it would be useful to really feel what every character might feel. Luckily, in prose, we get to jump into the POV character’s head on the page, so that helps.

    • My friend, Brandylin Collins, wrote such a book: Getting Into Character.

      I studied with Uta Hagen and her disciple, Tracy Roberts. I have a section in my own book on Writing Unforgettable Characters that deals with acting technique.

  8. Power Up Your Fiction is mentioned in The Saturday Evening Post! Now that’s news. Congratulations.

    When I start a work, I feel I only have a basic understanding of the characters, but I get to know them as I go along. Not to compare myself to Michelangelo, but he said, “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.”

    I feel the same way about my characters. They already exist. I just have to find a way to release them from inside my imagination. (And I’m grateful writing is a lot easier than sculpting marble. 🙂 )

    • “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.”

      Love that, Kay! Thanks for sharing.

  9. Fire Up Your Fiction is indeed excellent! Working on my Zon review in the next few days…

    In my forthcoming novel’s most harrowing scene, I sat with myself and imagined what it’d be like to lose my toddler in the neighborhood park. Even though that actually happened to my younger self once, it was a long time ago. That was the day, forty plus years ago, I almost died of grief and fear. I had to call up those memories and relive them.

    That gut-wrenching experience became Annie’s in the novel. And goes on and on for twenty-two pages. Every nauseating moment I went through became hers.

    After I wrote the scene, I vowed never to call up those memories again.

    • Well you really hit a nerve, Deb. Writing those harrowing moments, we experience it just like real life. I have been wrung out at the end of several of my books.

  10. Great information (but nothing unusual about that in a JSB post). I think the ‘write what you know’ “rule” for authors should be “write what you feel.” You don’t have to experience what your character does, but you’ve probably experienced those emotions in other situations.

  11. I can get into my adult characters’ skins just fine. I’m having trouble getting into the mind of a nine year old girl who plays a very important role in my book. For some scenes, she has to be a POV character, but even when she’s not, obviously I need to know how she’ll react in a given situation. Any advice?

    • Writing from a young person’s POV is a special challenge. It takes research, and interviews–actually talking to children of that age. Get a feel for how they talk and think. But also understand that children are variable just like adults, so avoid stereotypes.

  12. I’m convinced I was supposed to be an actor, because when it comes to questions of character like this, my answer is “I just do.” I dive into my characters, spend every waking moment with them. They’re constantly in the back of my mind, playing a scene–literally just before reading this post they were showing me a brand new denument scene for my WIP.

    And when I write, the emotion has to hit me strong to get it on the page. Thing is, I never SEEM to draw it from my own life. I’m so wrapped up in my POV character’s life that it feels like it comes from them. Then I take a step back and realize that it did come from some part of my life.

    I’ve always believed that traditional writer advice on character is bs, and that we need to learn from actors to get it right.

  13. As usual, your post makes perfect sense, and that’s confirmed by the comments your readers are making. Really, how else does anyone create characters that live without the writer acting? We’re all actors.
    One feature of this truth for me is that I’ve never been able to write an extended narrative in first person. It’s too confining for me. Others figure out how to use first-person narration and still develop other characters, but I can’t. This means that all my novels involve multiple POV characters.

  14. Tried to write two longer thoughtful responses, Jim. but keyboard act5ing up and they both vanished. So only this: Loved your lawyer friend’s comments.

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