Tag Archives: exercises

Getting into a character’s head

This entry is part 2 of 14 in the series Deep POV

As we discussed last week, writing in deep POV means being very close to our characters’ thoughts, feelings and perceptions. One of the most basic things we have to do to write in deep POV is to understand what our characters are thinking and feeling.

But since our characters are individuals who are at least somewhat distinct from us authors, this can be a challenge. How can we ever hope to understand the thoughts and emotions of people who aren’t us? After all, we can’t experience the thoughts and emotions of our parents, spouses or friends—we can never truly understand exactly what they feel.

My favorite trick for this was inspired by How to Write a Damn Good Mystery by James N. Frey. He explains that the kernel of any mystery is found in the villain, so that’s the first character he recommends designing. Once you’ve determined the physical, psychological and sociological aspects of the character, he recommends interviewing the character.

I’ll admit it sounds a little hokey to me. So instead of directly interviewing the character, I do a slightly different exercise: I write something short in that character. Sometimes I’ll pick a specific point in the story to “set” this character journal, usually either right before or right after the beginning.

To help get into the character’s head, first I’ve already come to know the character well—I’ve at least contemplated the life events that have brought him here, his attitudes, his interpersonal relationships. If it’s the villain, I know what he’s capable of (though sometimes I use the journal technique to figure out his motive).

While I’m not a fan of drawn-out character questionnaires, I do find it much easier to write if I have at least a vague idea of the characters—and writing the character journal helps to firm up my vague ideas and make them concrete. At least once, I wrote a journal and a scene when I was well into revisions, and it still helped me to discover things about my protagonist, who’d carried probably 60-70% of my manuscript.

But I think the biggest thing that helped was to write in first person, if only for this little section. As you write (and yes, I know this also sounds hokey), act: pretend to be that person, experiencing these feelings, thoughts and events. How do you feel about what has happened?

You could also try rewriting scenes from your story in first person. As you write, again, act, pretend. Close your eyes and visualize what happens in the scene, but not as someone else might see it—from the character’s vantage point. What do you notice? How does that make you feel? What do you think about?

When I’ve done this, like I said, it helps me get to know my characters better, even if I’ve already worked with them for a hundred thousand words. In fact, I often do this long-hand, and I’ve even seen my handwriting change as I delve more deeply into someone else’s thoughts, feelings and perceptions.

What do you do to really come to know your characters? How do you come to understand how your characters would think, speak and act (and react)?

If you feel comfortable, feel free to post a short excerpt from your character journals here! On Thursday we’ll look at some specific techniques for anchoring our readers on this same level of intimate knowledge of our characters.

Photo credits: plunge—Konrad Mostert; head scan—Max Brown