Exercises: Get to Know Your Characters

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

So you’ve found and named a protagonist, gave him a best friend, a dog, a mom, and a few other supporting characters. You’re ready to go!

Except, you don’t really know your characters all that well yet. You have their hair and eye color figured out, but their personality traits are still a bit hazy. And you’ve heard that stories are supposed to have character arcs, but you can’t figure out what kind of arc your protagonist should have.

Here are a few exercises to get your relationship with your book characters beyond the acquaintance stage.

Think of Traits to Make them Especially Unsuited for the “Special World”

Any book, regardless of genre, has a special world. The special, or extraordinary, world is simply the world your character is tossed into (or goes charging into at top speed depending on if they’re a reluctant hero or not) after the story begins. In The Hobbit, Bilbo’s ordinary world is his cozy home in The Shire, and the special world is him adventuring across the wilderness with a bunch of dwarves (to greatly simplify things).

Thinking of traits that make your characters unsuited for the special world is a great step towards knowing your characters better, making them interesting, setting up conflict for your story, and even creating character arcs.

In The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, one of the main characters, Isabelle, enters the special world of World War II reckless and believing herself invincible, two traits that make her especially unsuited for wartime. Spoiler alert: By the end of the novel, she learns she is not invincible. By making Isabelle unsuited for the special world, Kristin Hannah also gives Isabelle a way to learn and grow, perfectly setting the protagonist up for a character arc.

For another example, in Call of the Guardian by JM Williams, a book involving a good deal of dragons, the main character is afraid of fire, which creates more conflict and greater hurdles for the protagonist to overcome.

Try brainstorming a list of traits that make your character unsuited for the special world. If your book takes place on a ship, give your character water phobia. If your protagonist has to slay a sphinx, make them allergic to cats. If your character becomes a ruler, make them hate responsibility.

Take Personality Tests as Your Character

There are tons of free personality tests floating around the internet and answering the questions as your character would is a great way to get to know her better. Not only do you learn how she would answer each question, but at the end you get a personality type along with a lengthy description of that type’s strengths, weaknesses, insecurities, and fears that you can use as starting points for your protagonist.

My personal favorite is MBTI, just because it’s fun, and I would highly recommend enneagram because the descriptions include information about the type’s basic fears and desires, how they act when unhealthy, and how they can grow, all of which make great character fodder.

Think of How You Can Make Your Protagonist and Villain Mirror Images of Each Other

Coming up with ways to make your main character and villain mirror images of each other is a great way to get to know both at the same time. It can also set up an awesome showdown and create moments where your main character almost turns to the “dark side.”

To make your protagonist and antagonist mirror images of each other, make them as similar as possible but with one crucial difference, just like you and your reflection are pretty much the same, but your reflection’s left is your right.

In Harry Potter, Harry and Voldemort are mirror images of each other. Both grew up as orphans, both are powerful wizards, they have the same kind of wand, can talk to snakes, and would have been in the same house if Harry had gone into Slytherin like he was supposed to (*cuts off fangirl rant*). But they have one crucial difference: Harry loves others, Voldemort does not.

Try coming up with ways to make your main character and villain similar. Is it possible to give them the same backstory? What about personality traits? Even try giving them the same fatal flaw.

Now come up with ideas for that one crucial difference. This difference is usually a positive ideal, such as Harry Potter’s love. If the villain is oppressive, have the protagonist help others. If the villain is vengeful, make your main character forgiving.

Answer the Important Questions

You’ve probably heard of character questionnaires before, and maybe even filled one out yourself. Usually, these ask a lot of questions that aren’t all that important, like what your character’s height is. Skip the character questionnaires and answer the important questions about your character that have to do with who they are.

  1. What is your character’s external goal?

This is basically the story goal. What is it that your character is striving for, and why are they striving for it? In Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s external goal is to drop the ring into a volcano so Sauron won’t rise to power.

  1. What is your character’s internal goal?

This is a more personal want or need, stemming from inside the character as opposed to being thrust on them from outside forces. Often, the internal goal is at odds with the external one. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s internal goal is to live peacefully in the Shire, but he can’t because he has to take the ring to Mount Doom. But if he doesn’t take the ring to Mount Doom, then there will be no Shire. Being a hero is a pain.

  1. What’s different about how they see themselves and how they really are?

Often, there is a huge disconnect between how we see ourselves and how we really are. Making your character like this is a great way to give them a realistic personality as well as set them up for a character arc where they learn the truth about themselves and then have an opportunity to change (if the truth is ugly).

In The Hunger Games, Katniss believes she’s unlikeable and that nobody wants to help her. But people in her district help her and act like they care for her before she becomes a tribute, and after she gets to the Capitol, everyone there loves her. However, Katniss is oblivious to this all.

  1. What is your character’s fatal weakness?

Going back to the special world exercise, what is it about your character that makes them unsuited for the story world? Or what is a fatal flaw that could make the protagonist turn evil? Or what of the main character’s traits can the villain use against him?

Anakin Skywalker’s fatal flaw is being willing to do anything to save people he loves, which ultimately turns him into Darth Vader. In many superhero movies, the hero’s weakness is having loved ones which the villain kidnaps and uses against him.

  1. What is your character’s strength or positive ideal?

This can be a skill, personality trait, or even a moral strength that makes your main character uniquely qualified to face the villain, achieve the story goal, or survive in the special world.

In The Hobbit, Bilbo may not be good at fighting like the dwarves, but he’s sneaky and clever, which helps him triumph against ogres and elves when the dwarves can’t. In Harry Potter, Harry Potter has the power of love, which protects him from, and later on lets him defeat, Voldemort.

Answer these questions, along with whatever basic ones you think are important, like your character’s history, favorite song, or eye color, and you’ll be well on your way to crafting a compelling protagonist, as well as getting to know your characters beyond just what they look like.

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Sophia Uhlenhoff

Sophia is a writer of soft sci-fi and fantasy, who spends more time daydreaming about her books than actually writing them. She also enjoys procrastinating by playing Skyrim. If you see her, tell her to go write.

Currently, she's a student of creative writing at Boise State University and a Chaos Gate author at Fiction Vortex. Her dream is to live in a tree house next to a waterfall and have a pet bunny named Mr. Floofers.

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