8 cool ways to get close to your characters

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Image by Okko Pyykko.

People who aren’t writers don’t know the extent of background work that goes into writing a novel—how much plot, setting and character development we write that never appears on the published page.

This is a list of a few of those things.

If you find you have a flat, boring, predictable character—or possibly an unpredictable one, whom you can’t force to do anything he is supposed to do—you probably just don’t know him well enough. Here are some icebreaker exercises to get you two acquainted.

  1. Outline a short history of his (or her) life. Born in this type of neighborhood, went to this type of school, had these types of friends, had this first job, was obsessed with this brand of beef jerky, etc. Include all the major emotional events—moving to another town, death in the family, spelling bee won, heart broken, etc. Check every scene in your novel against this history. Does the character’s emotional reaction match his background? (I recently realized that, in my novel, I had recreated the most traumatic event of one character’s childhood, but he endured it with no signs of inner turmoil: not even a flashback. Don’t let this happen to you! Don’t waste a good chance to add drama!)
  1. Write a traumatic scene from his childhood. Pick one part of that history and actually write it out. It can be as traumatic as his parents’ violent deaths or just losing his mom in the grocery store for five minutes, or seeing a scary movie. This’ll help you figure out his deepest fears and how he reacts to them as an adult.
  1. Describe his “emotional acre.” This tip from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. She says we are each born with a sort of imaginary acre of land we can do whatever we want with. Plant vegetables or hold an eternal garage sale, that sort of thing. Based on what you now know about your character’s life, figure out what’s in his emotional acre. What does he nurture, hoard, or leave to ruin? With that in mind, ask what he carries in his pockets (or her purse), or keeps in his sock drawer.
  1. Write a stream of consciousness piece from his point of view. Even if you’re not writing in first person (or if you are, but this character isn’t the narrator), step into his head for half an hour and look through his eyes and read his thoughts. Write down what you discover.
  1. Write what people say about him behind his back. How others see him will reveal a lot about him—even is it isn’t all true. How does he stand? How does he sit? How does his posture change when he is bored or nervous? Do people misinterpret his body language? What are the worst rumors about him? How much of it is true?
  1. Write his eulogy—as written by some of your other characters. What people say about him after his death can be even more revealing. Are they afraid to speak ill of him, or was he such a jerk that no one cares? Do they remember nice things about him they had long forgotten? Do they wonder how they’ll go on without him?
  1. Take the Meyers-Briggs personality test for him. Now that you’ve got a feel for him, answer this series of yes or no questions on his behalf. At the end, they’ll tell you his personality type, give you some essays about that type, and a list of fictional and real characters who have/had the same personality. Read it all!
  1. Give him breathing space. You may go through several drafts of your novel, the character shifting with each draft. His actions and speech will change as you learn more about him, and you may discover things about him that force you to alter your plot. Go with it. Don’t try to force him into a box. In a strange twist that parallels Judeo/Christian theology, if you don’t give your characters free will, they will be boring, soulless robots.

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What Meyers-Briggs personality type is your character? Tell me in the comments! (I’ve got an INTJ and an INSJ.)

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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26 Comments

  1. Meredith Rose Ashe

    I’m INTJ also. This hasn’t changed from when I was a Junior in college 🙂 Rereading the description, I find that I am very much who I am.

  2. These ideas are very good. i especially like giving the characters personality tests.

  3. Great tips! Thanks for sharing.
    INTJ!

  4. I took the m.b.p.t. for a few of my characters, and the results were very helpful! (also, none of them were the same as me, which I found strangely comforting!). I did not, however, write down the results, which I now regret. I may have to do it all over again, especially for one of my antagonists who continually baffles me.

    Great advice on the rest of the points, too! I especially agree with giving a character space. If we tinker with them too much and try to make them into something, they almost always start feeling artificial. Let them run around and do their own thing and they might even pick up a nightstick. ;P

    • Yeah, I realized recently I’m sort of a mix between my two main characters, but they have characteristics I don’t… it’s like I’m their weird brain baby or something, instead of the other way around. Which kind of blew my mind.

      Yes! I was telling my brother about the nightstick thing the other night. He agreed that’s happened to him plenty of times. He also said we need an adjectival form of the word “arsidity” as in “that is so arsidity-ish.” Arsiditous? I don’t know.

  5. I have found when I switch to non-fiction, because I know the characters so well–from whom I’m borrowing personality and / or traits–they are richer and deeper in the story context. Knowing your characters, as described here works wonders.

    • Yes – definitely necessary to observe and then use traits you see in real people. I find it easier to draw traits from people who are only acquaintances, though. The people I’m really close to, it’s like I’m TOO close to them to settle on basic traits. There are too many layers, too many variables.

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  9. I like the Meyers-Briggs test one– very cool and unusual 🙂

  10. I’ve got an ENTJ, an ESFP, and an ISFP. This is a great article, by the way–very helpful.

  11. I have taken to including a Meyers-Briggs personality types for all my roleplaying game non-player characters to keep consistency when re-encountered. Too many to list.

  12. Yes! I can’t believe you mentioned number six and seven. Totally read my mind.

  13. Why is it I find the most engaging writing posts long after they’ve been posted? To the point I’m possibly bouncing an ancient topic?

    Nice suggestions on getting to know my characters.

    Anyways I love doing #7 and thought maybe I was a bit crazy for doing that with just about every main character.

    Me: infp with borderline F/T (can result in an INTP depending on the test questions and the situation)
    I relate with both types.

    Narrator/ protagonist: Haven’t quite pegged him down yet. INFP last time I tested but he seems INfJ at times. I’ll keep testing him some more.

    Main character #1: (soldier) ENFJ. I read this type does not make a good soldier, but given his backstory and everything I can’t see changing either one. I really like the interesting drama/ challenge it plays for an ENFJ to climb through the military ranks and what he has to do to rject the emotional side of himself as a coping strategy.

    Main character #2: Soldier’s brother figure/ best friend: INFJ.

    Main #3/ supporting character: INTJ. He’s a bit borderline on the T part. Maybe I haven’t pegged him yet. In my rough draft so far he shows strong emotion to his closest friends (the ENFJ and INTJ), loves them deeply because he’s grown up with them, but to most everyone else he’s rather quiet and independent, likes to take charge as a leading commanding officer, but prefers it if everyone knows what they supposed to do and doing it without him needing to direct them. He can appear cold and harsh to other characters, or perhaps misunderstood, as somewhat power hungry, but perhaps because he’s not good at explaining his ideas. (at least that was how he was in an older draft.)

    Other characters I’ve gotten: ENTJ, INFP, ISFJ, ESTJ, ENFP, ISFJ,

    Seems like I end up with a lot of iNtuitive judging types… okay.

  14. Noticed a few typos that slipped by.

    Corrected line:
    * Main #3/ supporting character: INTJ. He’s a bit borderline on the T part. Maybe I haven’t pegged him yet. In my rough draft so far he shows strong emotion to his closest friends (the ENFJ and INFJ)

    I’m not sure if showing emotion to his closest friends rules out the INTJ or supports it. I did some reading and it seems like he could? I did the test and he still showed up with a high degree of “T” to his test result with only about 20-30% on the feeling side.

  15. Yet more wondering, why is it that it seems the more I get to know a character, I see they have a number of contrasting traits, traits so contrasting, they seem almost out of character?

    The ENFJ for instance, appears to shut off his feeling side and play the role of an ENTJ when under stress, to the point of appearing very cold and unforgiving, merciless, but when he calms down, and in more candid situations he switches back, more relaxed, bubbly and occasionally giving hugs to the surprise to some of his friends that haven’t grown up with him.

    At one time I thought maybe I was being unrealistic with his character, or that he seems a bit unpredictable, but maybe it just that my character is really good at acting/ putting on a mask? It seems the more I follow him in different settings, he does seem take on whatever traits he can to get along with most people he comes across, unless they really tick him off. In that case, he can come across very cold. He also has difficulty forming close friendships, but that may be related to personal trauma for the character, rather than his personality.

    • Well, real people are complex, and often self-contradictory, so it’s possible you’ve simply built a realistic character. Just make sure their behavior is believable. We tend to imitate our parents – so for instance, perhaps his father is an ENTJ and he unconsciously mimics his father when stressed or in an unfamiliar situation.

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