Characterisation is important if you want to create believable characters, and character development is a way for writers to achieve this. The phrase ‘getting into your character’s head’ means the writer needs to have a fundamental understanding of the main character’s background, motivation, beliefs and goals – the very things that can influence the what the character does in the story, how they behave and how they act and react.
It means that everything is written instinctively. In other words, you don’t ponder how your character will act in one situation or what he would say. Instead you just write it, because you automatically know exactly what the character will do and say.
The reality is that the character is in your head; your creation, but the strength of characterisation is such that you can get into his or her mind at any moment, without losing focus, to feel his or her emotions, thoughts and feelings.
How do we do it?
Firstly, ask yourself how well you know your main character. If your characterisation isn’t strong enough, you won’t be able to get into the protagonist’s head; you’ll struggle to understand many character elements.
Character development, unlike characterisation, is an ongoing process throughout a story, because of the situations they face, obstacles they overcome and the traumas they endure. Characterisation, however, starts at the very beginning, before you commit even one word to the story, so it’s vital to characterise. You have to know what they like, dislike, love, hate, their beliefs, passions, relationships etc. Understand their physical, psychological and sociological characteristics, and how they see themselves in the world and with other people. Know their personality, what makes them tick.
Know who they are and what their backstory is – this is vital to how they behave in the story. Everyone’s past shapes how they behave in the present. What are the events that have brought them to the present moment?
Know what the character wants – what is their motivation? Why are they undertaking their journey? How do they feel about it? What will they accomplish and how would they feel if they failed? Something important must be at stake for them to do what they’re willing to do in order to achieve their goal. If you understand the character’s motivations, then it’s easier to understand his or her thoughts and feelings.
Make the character relatable. The vital connection for this is emotion, which in turn creates empathy with the reader. Emotions are universal to all of us – we feel pain, joy, sorrow and hate. Some things make us angry, some things make us laugh. But we can all relate to emotions, so as writers we tap into that, because we know readers will understand all these feelings; they will empathise with the character.
The one thing writers do to get into their character’s head is to echo their own feelings and thoughts and emotions. For instance, when you failed at something, how did you feel? Did it hurt deep inside? Were you angry? Disappointed or bitter?
When you lost something dear, did you feel distraught, sad or maybe depressed? And if something amazing happened, how did you react? Did you celebrate, did you get drunk or did you simply smile to yourself?
If you know your character well enough, you’ll know exactly how he or she would act and react or behave in any given situation.
- Characterise before writing.
- Know their backstory and past.
- Know what the character wants, and why. Know exactly what motivates them.
- Make the character relatable to the reader – what are their goals, what’s at stake?
- Know their thoughts, behaviours, traits, emotions and feelings.
Next week: Using body language (kinesics) to characterise.