Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? Getting To Know Your Characters

I am a lover of characters. Despite how good a plot is, if there are no characters I can truly care for, then I am lost. I fall from the story.

So how do we capture the true essence of our characters? How do we make  others love and hate them?

There are many techniques for getting into character. One obvious way is to make note of basic physical characteristics that will give you a reference as the story progresses. Taking the time to record all the basics can help form a clear image in your head. It gets your mind asking questions that add layers to your original physical features.

Most characters come with an assortment of baggage. And sometimes you need to dig deep to unearth the good bits. Interviewing them can scratch away at the surface and help reveal what lies beneath. I  have a kitchen in my mind where I get to know my characters. It’s in an old stone cottage that overlooks a bluff with views to the sea. The kitchen is small and quaint, a fire burns in the hearth and pots rattle about on the stove. They say the way to man’s heart is through his stomach, so I invited my main character’s love interest over for dinner, ambushing him with an interview that revealed more than I bargained for. By putting myself in the scene of his confession, I learned many things that I hadn’t been privy to. Here’s what happened when Billy came over for dinner.

Billy is here. I hear his dark heavy boots thud down on the stone paver outside, one after the other. The back door creaks open and he stands tall, framed by the doorway. Dusk settles upon his shoulders, and behind him a bleak sky is heavy with the promise of an evening with rain. His hair is dark and curly, whipped into wildness, parts of it matted and stuck to his angular face. His black sweater is limp and his jeans are almost soaked though.

He peels off his sweater, steps into the room and closes the door. He wears a tee shirt beneath, plain and black. It is damp and clings to his skin, revealing his abdomen and chest rising and falling in opposing waves as he catches his breath. He walks to the hearth and carefully lays the sweater over a chair to dry. The glow of the fire highlights his features- his green eyes springing to life like bursts of tropical rain on a cold winter’s day.

“I got caught in the rain,” he smiles at me, stating the obvious.

“Yes, I can see that…”

“So whaddya want to talk about?” he asks.

“You. Us…” I say.

“You make us sound like a couple.” He frowns and pushes his slickened hair back from his face, revealing a deep scar that tracks across the left side of his forehead.

“We go beyond that, I think. Without me your basically nothing…”

He smirks at me, folds his arms tightly over his chest.

“S’pose. Probably turn up in somebody else’s head eventually though. All ideas find somewhere to land,” he says, pulling a chair from the table. I know this is true.

“I hoped you’d be earlier. I hope dinner isn’t spoiled,”

“I had some things to sort,’ he says. I wonder about this. Add it to the list already occupying my mind.

Between us, the kitchen table holds a simple setting for two around a small posy of daisies that offer the room a splash of much needed brightness. There is freshly baked bread on a board, still warm. I hesitated over wine glasses given the history I think he has, and eventually decided against them.

“You need to stop cooking these dinners. I’m getting a gut,” he says, rubbing at a rock hard belly. There is no evidence of an abundance of meals.  He spins the chair around and straddles it.

“Well, least I know somebody’s feeding you,” I say. His smile is infectious and the daisies pale in comparison. He folds his arms along the backrest of the chair and then leans his chin on the back of a tattooed wrist.

“So, fire away,” he says.

“The scar – how did you get that?” He lifts one hand to his forehead and traces the crevice with his fingertips.

“Oh, this old thing…”

“Uh huh,” I stare at him; my pen poised and ready to write. His hand drops from his forehead and slaps loudly against his damp thigh. He exhales a long slow deep breath through tightly pursed lips that ends in a tiny whistle. It blows an uncomfortable silence between us. A log shifts in the hearth and rain spatters against the windows as the wind shifts about outside. On the mantle, my grandmother’s clock ticks off the seconds before he answers.

“Sure you want to know?” he asks in a voice  that is slow and measured.

“Of course I do,” I say, my voice barely a whisper. I realize at this point that what he tells me could change the whole story. But still, I must learn the ins and outs of this boy. His mouth twists to one side and he nervously runs his fingers through his wet hair. He straightens himself and then fidgets about in the chair, rubs his palms up and down the length of his denim thighs. Sweat beads along the length of his scar and I see that my Billy is suddenly nervous, uncomfortable.

“It was a while back. Somebody tried to kill me…” he says. My eyes widen in surprise.

“Who?”

“Doesn’t matter,”

“Of course it matters. Tell me who…”

“I don’t know if I can…if I tell you then everyone else will find out the truth. They’ll all judge me,”

“People judge no matter what. They don’t need an excuse. Tell me so I can tell them the truth,”

“Tell the truth?” he asks, looking up at me. Surprise shows in his eyes like it has lost its true bearings.

“Yes, Billy. Truth. Tell me who did this to you.”

His eyes fall from the moment as memory leads him astray. His face darkens and I sense a tempest raging within. He lifts his gaze and we look at each other without the awkwardness of words, and I see his eyes swim beneath unshed tears.

“My grandfather did this to me.” His voice breaks a little. He stares down at the table and toys with the bread knife.

“Why?” I’m almost too scared to continue. I wasn’t expecting this.

“Because I tried to kill him,” he says.  I’m not sure what to say. I’ve asked ‘why’ so many times I’m beginning to sound like a four year old. We sit for ages, listening to the rain pounding against the tin roof. The veges are starting to bubble away on the stove and I’m beginning to think the conversation is cooked. But then Billy’s voice filters back into the room.

“He used to hurt her…” he sounds distant, as he tangles the present with a torturous past. I look up to see his is crying. He wipes at a tear like he is ashamed of its presence.

“Who did he hurt?”

“My grandmother. He would beat her. Rape her. I don’t know why she stayed. I don’t know why she didn’t just leave. There was this one-day – I was out the back chopping wood for the fire. I could hear them arguing inside. They argued a lot but this one day – it was the sound of his hand slapping her face, and the sound of her scream. No one should scream like that… ”

“What happened?” I see his brow furrow and his shoulders sag beneath the weight of these memories.

“I’m not really sure. I don’t really remember – I ran inside with the axe in my hand. All I know is that I wanted to kill him. The next thing I remember is my brother, Jake, standing over me, shaking me. Gran was beside me. She was dead and there was blood everywhere. Mine, mostly. My grandfather hunched over her, crying, screaming at me and saying over and over again.

“Look what you’ve done,”

I want to keep going but can’t bring myself to ask anymore. The remorse in his face tells me the rest.

“Did you do it?” the question falls from my mouth and lands with a boot like thud between us.

“I think the veges are done. Let’s eat…” he says. He rubs his face into his sleeve with a shrug and gets up. The chair scrapes in protest against the floorboards.  I stay silent. I am hungry to know more but wise enough to let what we’ve uncovered digest for a while.

I’ll give him a while – besides – there are others to dine.

Links to resources that may help you get to know your characters better.

Character questionnaire

Free Character Chart

QWC’s Motivated Action, Motivated Characters Workshop led by Adair Jones

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19 thoughts on “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? Getting To Know Your Characters

  1. Thanks to everyone for all your lovely comments. This was a little lengthy, so I appreciate you taking the time to read it all.

  2. Your first para is so true. I’m a writer who wouldn’t even know where to start without her characters. That’s where I get the plot from. Once a strong character starts inhabiting my imagination-space, I just listen to what they say.

    • Hi Noreen,

      Thanks so much for your lovely comment. I really enjoy discovering my characters this way and some of what bubbles to the surface can usually be used in the actual story. I find it a little more interesting than making lists of traits! It puts it into context for me.

  3. Lynn, I just caught up with this post – what a wonderful way to impart your very useful information. I, too, was totally caught up in Billy’s story – you truely have a wonderful way with words. It left me wanting to know more, just like you. 🙂

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