Character: Walk in Their Shoes

Atticus Finch knew that “you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them” (I forgot the actual quote, so I sprung this from Sparknotes). You can’t judge someone until you’re privy to all the aspects of their situation, of their life. It’s important to shift perspective in order to gain a better understanding.

I’m working on a character for a short story, who, as of yet, has no flaws, and I’m wondering in what ways can I get to know her? How do I reveal those flaws?

Before the readers, before the writing… how do you get to know your own creation? An important caveat: For those of you who have read Shelley’s Frankenstein, you might remember how Victor Frankenstein became obsessed with creating life. He devoted himself to one thing and poured his soul and all his energy into this. Naturally, he got physically sick, lost contact with his friends and family, and began to lose his mind. You don’t want to get so close to this character that it enraptures your life. An author should have a hold on various perspectives of his/her story and all of its many parts.  Thus, you should have the ability to see both the big picture and the smaller details, but if you’re too close, you might have trouble distancing yourself enough to see your character as your reader would.

So, while still keeping a safe distance, how do you go about fleshing out a character? Is it possible to simultaneously walk in their shoes and be objective? There are different exercises you can use to carefully give your character dimensions.

1. Questionnaires — You can find these easily — online, in books, in class — questionnaires are everywhere.

2. Criminal Interrogation — Charge your character with a crime (you choose whether or not your character is guilty). Play bad cop/good cop and try to prove that they’ve committed said crime by asking a bunch of pressing questions. Overwhelm the character. How does your character react under stress?

3. Fight with a Friend — Another stress exercise for your character. What would happen if your character got into an altercation with his/her closest friend?

4. Psychoanalysis of a Dream — Conjure up any random dream you’d like — the weirder the better. Take your character to see a professional psychoanalyst and let them pick apart your character’s freak dream. Let your creative juices flow freely; let your instincts guide you; work with whatever interpretation you produce (i.e. the disappearing food on the thanksgiving dinner table is your character’s inability to control his/her surroundings). Naturally, when you become privy to your character’s subconscious, you’ll also become privy to his/her true feelings, desires, and fears.

5. Tarot cards — This is a cool idea. I recently saw it on Write to Done, but it appears on other sites as well. This method is especially nifty when you don’t know much about character or when you want to know their future.

6. Compare and Contrast: Buddy for a Day — For one day, have your character follow you around. Whatever happens — compare/contrast it to what your character would do or feel in that situation. You’re creating a real life scenario to see how your character would behave and/or think in a less action filled, plot-driven circumstance.  Comparing/contrasting is a tool that might allow you to get a better understanding of the possible causes and effects of these behaviors and thoughts. You’re natural instinct isn’t to analyze your own actions, but when creating another life, it’s handy to know the ins and outs. Another method of ‘Buddy for a Day’ is for you to follow your character around. What does a day in the life of your character look like?


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Jessie Leon
    Apr 09, 2010 @ 23:01:41

    I love this! I think the #1 essential for creating characters is having a wild imagination…-.-


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