I was teaching a masterclass at The Guardian yesterday and we were discussing characters. One of my students said this:
‘I think of my characters as horses.’
To be honest, I couldn’t believe my ears. If you know me on Facebook and Twitter, you’ll know I’m rather fond of the equine breed, so when one of my students said ‘I think of my characters as horses’, I thought I was still in bed at home, waiting for the alarm.
Not as mad as it seems
But she went on to explain. She ran a carriage-driving centre, and found that all of her horses were such different temperaments they were a great basis for building fictional characters.
Stay with me here, because it makes glorious sense. One of the fundamentals of a character is what they’re like in the core of their soul, the things they can’t fake or change. Whether they’re bold in new situations, whether they feel safer following the crowd or prefer to be in charge, what kind of personalities annoy them, whether there are bad past experiences that have left scars, whether they’re naturally friendly or touchy-feely, or prefer to keep to themselves, whether they’re gentle or insensitive.
If you hang around horses a lot – and, I can imagine, dogs – you’re used to the company of a creature that can’t pretend. It always shows the material they’re made of. Then if we start to imagine those behaviours translated into a human character, who might try to cover them up, and whose life might make more complex demands…
The Johari Window
Indeed, this is not unlike the Johari Window, which can be useful for designing characters. It’s a grid, split into four, in which you write:
- the things the character and everyone else knows
- the things only the character knows
- the things everyone else knows but the character doesn’t
- the things that are unknown – the traits, fears, and feelings that no one suspects.
These last two are where we can have most fun with the character: the impulses that drive them, behaviours they are not in control of, and make them complex and interesting.
That’s the horse self. (And a nice excuse for me to include a picture of my own Lifeform Three.)
Use this to write a character who is very different from your own personality
Another student asked how to write a character who is very different from you.
This is where advice to ‘write what you know’ seems somewhat unhelpful. If we followed it we wouldn’t write murderers, queens, abuse victims, abusers, fatally jealous people, talented artists, heiresses, politicians, housemaids in Victorian houses, wizards…
On the other hand, ‘writing what you know’ is the place to start. All characters will have certain traits that we can relate to. Again, these come back to very simple impulses. What do they want to protect? What makes them feel threatened? What gives them joy and release? What makes them feel safe? If you start with those, you can find your way into most characters.
There are more tips for your fictional people in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel.
Do you have any off-the-wall tips for getting to the hidden depths in a character? All pets welcome.
#1 by imadeiyamu on January 18, 2015 - 11:57 am
This is very insightful.
#2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 18, 2015 - 7:24 pm
#3 by Middlemay Farm on January 18, 2015 - 1:43 pm
I’m definitely going to use the grid. That’s perfect for play time! In real life I’m often accused of seeing too many points of view. It works better in novels.
#4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 18, 2015 - 7:25 pm
Oh how interesting to be told you see too many points of view. While it may be irritating in real life, it fits you very well for writing good characters. Thanks for stopping by!
#5 by kennymurdockcomedy on January 18, 2015 - 6:19 pm
I love this. I’m going to peruse your blog further, as you seem to give great tips. Your voice on these blogs is perfection.
#6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 18, 2015 - 7:26 pm
Most kind of you Mr Murdock.
#7 by jennifermzeiger on January 18, 2015 - 6:59 pm
I’ve never set up a Johari Window for my characters before. This could be hugely helpful! Thanks, Roz.
#8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 18, 2015 - 7:26 pm
Thanks, Jennifer – have fun with it!
#9 by DRMarvello on January 18, 2015 - 7:51 pm
I have no off-the-wall tips, but I’d like to thank you for the article. I’ll probably use dogs to try your suggestions instead of horses, since I have more experience with canines. The Johari Window is a fascinating concept too. I love learning about new potential tools for my writing toolbox.
#10 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 18, 2015 - 8:07 pm
Thanks, Daniel! I’m sure dogs will work just as well.
#11 by Sammy on January 18, 2015 - 9:53 pm
So I totally copied that grid and pasted it in my Evernote notebook on writing well. Very helpful post! Sometimes I like doing one of those detailed character profiles. I also always ask what do my characters fear the most and what is it they desire the most that would surprise their loved ones—even me!
#12 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 18, 2015 - 11:27 pm
Hi Sammy! Glad you enjoyed the grid.
I like your character question there – especially the point about surprising the people who the characters know most closely. Thanks for sharing this!
#13 by feliciajane411 on February 1, 2015 - 11:21 am
I am so glad I read this blog post. I’ve been scratching my head as to how to write real characters; the answer has been in front of me the entire time. Horses are the key to freedom. Thanks for writing this.
#14 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 1, 2015 - 7:55 pm
Thanks, Felicia! Love that phrase: ‘horses are the key to freedom’.
#15 by feliciajane411 on February 1, 2015 - 11:22 am
Reblogged this on Felicia Jane and commented:
This is why horses and writing go well together.