Finding your character

By: Jake Arnott

Tips / All / Backstory, Characterisation, Dialogue, Generating ideas, Igniting the imagination, Location/Situation, Plot, Research, Starting to write, Subject, Unfolding scenes, Writing a novel

Sometimes characters turn up like old friends and just start talking to you like you’ve known them all their lives. Other times they are elusive: fugitives you have to follow or track down with just a sparse set of clues. Some are destined to remain strangers, enigmas for a reader to decode. But if you really need to know a character the best way to find them out is to become them.

If you spend some time as your character then you might be able to channel something of what the Method school of acting call the ‘art of experiencing’. We know of how actors have done this, of Robert DeNiro spending weeks driving a New York cab in preparation for his role in Taxi Driver. As a writer you can be more measured in your approach, but it’s worth playing the role of your character just a little to test what their motivations might be. So experiment in how they move, what they eat, read and make their way through the world. Go and see things through their eyes and collect what actors call ‘sense memories’.

And the greatest research resource you have for your character is yourself. It is so often in the characters seemingly wildly different from us that we find aspects of ourselves. Remember what Flaubert said of his greatest creation: ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi.’


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