Getting to Know Our Characters

I’ve been reading a lot of books to research the new novel, but I’ve also been feeling frustrated. I don’t really have a handle on the woman who’s my main character yet, and how can I start writing until I have a strong sense of who she is? I keep measuring my lack of certainty about this character against my understanding of Betsy Bonaparte, and really there’s no comparison.

Yesterday, however, I began to think that perhaps it is my memory that is failing me, not my creativity. I’m comparing how well I know Sarah, the new character, at the beginning of the writing process to how well I knew Betsy at the end of the writing process. I wish I could remember how strongly Betsy felt present to me when I was first reading her biographies, but I can’t. It seems to be a bit like what mothers say about labor; once you fall in love with that baby as a real physical person, you start to forget the pain of labor. I can’t really remember much about the early uncertainties and doubts I had about telling Betsy’s story.

As a result of that insight, I’m trying to ratchet down my expectations for this stage a bit. Once I finish reading and start developing the chapter outline and character biographies, I think things will improve. I’m sure I will get to a point where Sarah feels present to me. Plus, the real knowledge often comes in the actual writing. That’s where the characters usually start to come alive for me. That’s certainly how it worked with Betsy’s son and even with Jerome.

In some ways, I think I’m worried because I fear I won’t be able to pull off the feat of writing a novel again. But that fear is probably normal too.

If you’re a writer, what is this stage of the writing process like for you?

11 Comments

Filed under Writing

11 responses to “Getting to Know Our Characters

  1. I have a hard time at this point. My characters don’t generally show their personality for a few chapters. I forge ahead, and address it in the second pass. I’m trying some character sheets for my next story.

  2. I hear you. I wrote about a schizophrenic person for my novel. I thoroughly researched the disease and still felt lost. Then I found a book about the disease written by someone who actually had it. This perspective helped so much. Try writing but don’t stop researching. You might just find the gem you are looking for.

  3. Our own expectations are what can wound us the worst, I feel. Our hesitation and comparison can limit us more than any external critic, because once we’ve distracted ourselves, or lost faith and second guessed that crucial last time, a novel can be lost and characters may never be known.

    At this stage in the writing process, I feel like I have flashes of my main characters, just glimpses into things they’ve done, gestures they might have, or bits of conversation. I’m in the super early stages of planning a fantasy novel, and I don’t have anybody’s “voice” yet, only the stage dressings. I’m also in the final pages of a first draft (my April project) and am quite comfortable in my main character’s skin. So I think you’re VERY right when you say writing them is when you truly “know” them, as they can sort of come to life organically as the words form.

  4. I always seem to forget how much I struggle at the start of a manuscript. Everything is fine up until I actually start drafting. I was complaining about this a few weeks ago to my brother and he goes, “Why do you always do this?” I was confused, like, “I always do this?” But he’s right. It’s a normal part of the process for some people, to doubt or drag in the beginning. You have company. 🙂

  5. Hi Ruth, you’re right about the feeling that a character has to be ‘present’ before it’s comfortable writing them. I have the same problem with short stories and unfamiliar characters. Sometimes it takes more time for some characters to feel ‘real’ than others, or maybe it comes down to familiarity, like walking a new pair of shoes in, until they are comfortable?

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