The Blog of John Hewitt

Exploring characters through their possessions

The possessions that a character chooses to surround themselves with can reveal a great deal about the way they lead their lives. Directors and actors frequently use possessions as a way to study their characters. They decorate the character’s room, office, vehicle, locker or any other common places the character would use. They also determine how the character would dress, often shopping for clothes that fit the persona of the character.

You can determine many things about a character from their possessions, including:

  • Cultural background
  • Social class
  • Wealth
  • Intellectual interests
  • Emotional interests
  • Artistic interests
  • Level of organization or disorganization
  • Favorite colors
  • Age
  • Secrets

Here are some common areas in which you can explore a character’s possessions:

  • Clothes
  • Bedroom
  • Living room
  • Bathroom
  • Kitchen
  • Secret or private room
  • Closet
  • Office
  • Cubicle
  • Desk
  • Pockets
  • Purse
  • Backpack
  • Locker
  • Hope chest
  • Vehicle

Here are some questions you can ask in addition to describing their possessions. Remember that any of these questions should be followed up by asking “Why?”

  • Does the character have many possessions or few possessions?
  • Does the character hide any of their possessions?
  • What condition are the character’s possessions in?
  • Does the character have any possessions that are broken or unfinished?
  • Does the character’s possessions differ significantly from place to place or according to who will see them?
  • Is there a particular order to the possessions that the character keeps?
  • What are the character’s most valued possessions?
  • Are there any possessions that the character keeps hidden?
  • Is there any possession the character doesn’t have that they want?
  • Is there any possession the character has that they don’t want?
  • What is the effects of other people’s opinions about the character’s possessions?
  • If the character was packing for a trip, what would the character take?

Creating a character biography

When you write a biography for a character, you discuss some of the major events and people that have shaped the life of the character up until the point at which the novel begins. This method looks at things such as accomplishments, tragedies and anything that made a serious change in the character’s life. It should also give you some idea of the character’s everyday interests. You can write it in the third person or the first person (as if it were an autobiography). This can help you develop the character’s voice. It can also be fun to write the biography as if it were a magazine profile or a dossier by a private investigator or spy.

What should you include?

Some of the things you might discuss when writing the character’s biography include:

  • Description of family
  • Date of birth
  • Place of birth
  • Location changes
  • Interests
  • Talents
  • Legal trouble
  • Educational experiences
  • Work experiences
  • Athletic achievements
  • Influences
  • Political activism
  • Friends
  • Romantic relationships / marriage
  • Awards
  • Failures
  • Tragedies and difficulties
  • Controversies
  • Name changes
  • Clubs and organizations

Interesting Biographies

The great thing about biographies are that there are plenty of examples on the web. Here are a few biographies you might want to look at before you start on yours:

Maya Angelou
Harold Pinter
The Autobiography Project
Jackson Pollock
Joseph “Shoeless Joe” Jackson
Charles Bukowski

Building Characters by Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a proven technique for exploring just about any idea. The process consists of quickly recording (without editing yourself) all of the options/descriptions/ideas /thoughts you have about a topic. You then sort through your items and pick the ones that work. This process can easily be applied to creating characters.

I have purposely tried to leave the sort of details you should review as vague as possible. If you really need more guidance, however, you might want to start with appearance, friends, goals, quirks, flaws, problems, values, morals, history, possessions, skills, fears, favorites, enemies, education, finances, pets, and family. Don’t feel as if you need to include all of these categories or limit yourself to these categories. Just write what comes to mind.

Step One: Find a way to organize your thoughts

Get a large sheet of paper, notebook, a set of index cards or a computer application that you can use to write ideas on.

Step Two: Write what you know already

Write down the information that you already know about the character. This could be as basic as the name and gender. The point is, get the things that you are sure about out of the way first.

Step Three: Explore the possibilities

Begin writing down every possible potential detail that you can think of for the character. The details can be random and even contradictory. Your record every possible thing you can think of that seems to fit the character. Spend as much time as you need, but no less than fifteen minutes.

Step Four: Figure out what matters

Review the potential details and discard details that you are sure won’t apply to your character. Separate the rest into details you are absolutely sure that you want, details that might work, and details that are still interesting but contradict each other.

Step Five: Build your profile

Create your profile of the character, grouping details into categories of similar items. Concentrate on the details you are sure about but give the other details a final review to decide which ones should be added.

Using interviewing to create fictional characters

The character interview is a chance to explore both a character’s background and voice. It is an exploration of a character’s opinions, experiences, goals and attitudes. The basic method of conducting an interview is simple. You ask questions and then, as the character, answer those questions.

Many Forms of Interviews

Interviews come in many forms, and you can get as creative with them as you like. Many people choose to conduct interviews in the style of a relevant magazine. For example, you might use a Rolling Stone or People Magazine style interview to approach a celebrity character. You might use a hobby magazine interview to approach a character with a particular interest, such as building model railroads.

You may also pose the interview as a police interrogation, a job interview or a therapy session. An additional alternative is that you can interview one character about another. You might interview a mother about her child or an employer about an employee. If you don’t feel that creative, then simply ask questions and don’t worry about who the interviewer is.

Let the Conversation Flow

One of the real benefits of the interview method is that it can be a free flowing and natural process. It can be easy to generate a lot of information about a character quickly using this technique, once you get used to the style. It can also be more fun than many of the other methods of exploring a character.

Resources

Here are some interviews of authors to get you in the mood:

Using a normal day to define your character

The day in the life approach to developing a character is focused on describing a normal day in the character’s life before something important happens to change it. Most central characters begin a story in their normal world. At some point, an event happens that takes them out of their normal world and sends them on whatever journey the story has in store for them. Until that journey begins, your characters probably have a normal routine to their day that says a great deal about who they are and how they conduct their life.

  • The beauty of analyzing a character’s day is that there are always opportunities to delve as deeply into their actions as you want. You can take an event as simple as a person’s drive to work and learn a great deal about them.
  • What kind of car do they drive?
  • Do they keep it clean or is it messy?
  • What, if anything, do they listen to on the radio?
  • Are they the sort of person that fiddles with the radio as they drive, never satisfied with what they are listening to?
  • Are they the sort of person who puts on makeup or shaves while they drive?
  • Do they talk on the phone as they drive?
  • Do they get upset with other drivers?
  • Do they tailgate?
  • Are they careful or nervous drivers?
  • Do they plan their day as they drive?
  • Do they speed or run red lights?

As you assemble a person’s day you get a good idea of their traits and flaws. You can also determine who they interact with and care about, what their economic status is, what their general level of happiness or unhappiness is and plenty of other details. The key is to go deeply enough to get comfortable with the character and feel like you know them and know how they react in general to the events in their lives.

When approaching the daily routine, you can go a number of ways. You can move chronologically, go by major events, or just ask random questions about their day and see what the answers are. You can write it as if it were a short story, a daily planner or surveillance. Find an approach that you are comfortable with and explore the character.