Getting to Know Your Characters

“An author is in every single character they write. Harry, Ron, Hermione—I am in all three of them.”

J K Rowling

A writer has to know every last detail of their characters (and perhaps leave a tiny part of themselves in every one, like J K Rowling). They have to get to know them intimately, to be able to make them come alive on the page and resonate with readers. One of a writer’s worst nightmares is being accused of writing a 2-dimensional character. A character without heart, without motivation, without vulnerabilities and strengths will not sound realistic to a reader.

So how does an author get to know their characters? Every author has a slightly different technique, but I like to use an in-depth set of questions to really flesh out each personality. I do this in the planning stage, so I’m already in the head of my protagonist (or antagonist) well before I start writing.

But these questions I ask are way more than just listing physical attributes. We’re less concerned with the fact a character is a 6’2” black man with a goatee who lives in Nice, and more concerned with the fact that his young son died of SIDS, but he still dreams about the feel of his soft baby fingers wrapped tightly around his thumb. We fall in love with the core of a character’s personality, want to find out what drives them to make the decisions and mistakes they do along their journey.

Crafting Unforgettable Characters is a free ebook from K. M. Weiland. Hop on over to her website at and take a look.

This book has been invaluable in helping me get to the core of my characters. It was written in 2006, but is still relevant today. K M Weiland has come up with 100 questions, which she suggests you use as a character interview. I have adapted this method to suit myself, adding some of my own questions and removing a few of hers.

I thought it might be interesting to show you just a few of the 100 questions, so you can see how complex creating a character can be. The interview below is from my character, Jean-Luc Munulo, a counter-terrorist agent in France, from my book in progress, called GLASS CLOUDS (a working title).

Of course physical appearance (and keeping it consistent, eye colour, hair colour, those kind of things can’t change half way through a book) is important too, and most authors will keep a portfolio of photos etc. of lookalikes for their individual characters. Here’s a photo of what I think (dream) Jean-Luc might look like.

Birthday: 7th January 1988 (now 33) Capricorn

Origin of name: Jean-Luc is his grandfather’s name, on mother’s side. Munulo is his father’s surname, Sudanese

Place of Birth: Near Sault, Provence, France

Mother: Helene Babineaux was born in Sault, Provence, on her parent’s Lavender farm. Brought up along traditional French lines, she has one younger sister, Adele. Helene loves working the Lavender farm; it’s her passion and her life. She and her sister inherited equal shares of the farm, but Adele married a Parisian artist and moved to Paris, leaving her and Jayian (father, African refugee) to run the farm (just the way she likes it) Her parents were devastated when she first brought Jayian home. It wasn’t done back then for the daughter to marry one of the itinerant workers, and to make things 100 times worse, he wasn’t even French! Even now, his mother and father still get stares from locals and visitors to the town alike. People can’t get used to seeing a black and white couple together. Jean-Luc has had to live with this pervasive prejudice all his life, and this has moulded many of his thoughts and the way he views the world today.

Father: Jayian (meaning the rain) Munulo is an African immigrant who arrived in France in 1968 as a 9 year old, displaced from Sudan after a civil war in 1963. He arrived on a boat with his mother and younger brother. His father, a teacher, was killed in the war, and he and his family were left destitute and homeless. Jayian is Christian. They moved to the country, so his mother could find work picking lavender. His schooling was sporadic, even though the French government did try hard to assimilate all immigrants, he spent a lot of his time working to help support his family.

What was important to the people who raised Jean-Luc: His mother and father love each other very much, and this is what’s most important to them, not the colour of someone’s skin. They have tried to instil these ideals into Jean-Luc, but because of his job (counter-terrorism agent), he knows that equality is not always that easy. Love doesn’t always conquer all.

Lavender is the most important thing to his family, producing the highest quality, to be sold to the Grasse perfumeries. But sometimes Jean-Luc finds the smell confining and overpowering, reminding him of the feeling that used to overwhelm him, of the need to escape from the farm and its small-village mentality.

Siblings: Jean-Luc has two other brothers, one older, Herve, and one younger, Fabien. Herve has always showed the most interest in the farm, and is set to take over when his parents become too old to run it, which is fine with Jean-Luc, it left him free to escape to the city (Paris) and then become a cop. He is closer to his younger brother, Fabien, who is an artist, but all three get along well.

Economic/ social status growing up: Jean-Luc has always felt like a little bit of an outsider, displaced. His family enjoyed a normal, middle-class status in the village of Sault (as all farmers do) and might have even been considered rich by some standards. Their farm has always done well, and they have generous contracts with some of the Grasse perfumeries. So Jean-Luc has never wanted for anything materially, and the extra money has afforded the family a buffer against some of the worst racism and other insulting remarks.

Ethnic Background: Children born in France to foreign parents are automatically granted French citizenship upon reaching the age of 18. He was brought up essentially French, but with some African traditions (brought in mainly by Jean-Luc’s grand-mere, Jayian’s mother). The family meals are often a fusion of African and French cuisine, but the farmhouse and the surrounding farm are completely French.

I don’t want to bore you with too much information, but as you can see from this, there is a lot of backstory already in Jean-Luc’s character, even in this small set of questions, but most of this won’t even appear in the finished novel. It’s all part of getting to know a character better. Interviewing each of my characters can often take two to three days, and can be two to three thousand words long.

What do they want and why do they want it? These are the two main driving forces behind every single book ever written and every single unforgettable character. A well-written character will have a distinctive voice so that readers remember them, as well as a main goal that drives them. Everything they do must be true to their personality. For example, when Jean-Luc sees a young couple strolling down the Nice Promenade pushing a pram, he immediately thinks of them as naïve and weak, and has to look away in disgust from the happy pair. The loss of his baby (and then divorce by his wife) colour his every thought and decision. If he were a different character, he might instead see the hope and potential that a young couple just starting out together have to look forward to.

For an author, getting to know your characters is a little like making new friends. You have to like and understand each one (if you don’t then it will show through in your writing)

As you can see, getting to know your characters is time consuming and thought provoking, but I can guarantee if an author takes the time to do it they’ll end up with a character that leaps off the pages, and one the readers will fall in love with time and time again.

I’d love to hear about who your favourite character of all time is, and what makes them so endearing.

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