To riff on a great line from a great book (To Kill a Mockingbird) you never really know a character until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Characters are really people, aren’t they? So that’s exactly what we need to do — walk around in their shoes. Really. It’s fun!
Step 1: What kind of shoes does your character wear?
Do you know? What do you picture? Flip flops? Uggs? Chucks? Chucks personalized with paint or markers? Shoes tell us something about the person wearing them — they could speak to comfort or style or status. Think about your characters. It’s not necessary to say what they’re wearing, just to have a feel for it yourself, although sometimes I’ve used the actual shoes to make a figurative point:
In the Absolute Value of Mike, Mike always wears the same style of brown lace-up Clarks his now deceased mom bought for him when he was little — an indication of his connection to her and his yearning for a family since he’s so disconnected from his dad.
Matt wears big black boots in Quaking to look tough and protect her from the world that, so far, has only hurt her.
Adrian’s boots are too small at the beginning of The Badger Knight and he is, for the first time, entrusted to buy his own new boots. He chooses poorly — stylish, expensive, and too large — because he’s relying on trappings to make himself feel big and important. As his hero’s journey continues, Adrian is increasingly grateful for the practical boots his father ended up trading for, realizing that true power and beauty come from within.
Step 2: Where is your character standing?
Look around. How does the setting affect your character? Is your character:
Fish out of water?
One of many, trying to break out?
What about the environment is pushing against your character and how does he or she push back? Think of it this way: if your character were in the Wild West, how would where your character stands differ from Downtown Abbey? A modern urban environment? A small boat at sea? Narnia? The setting your character comes up against is going to tell us a lot about who your character is.
And how, exactly, does your character see it? Is there any vision issue? What is your character’s physical perspective? Is she tall, short, young, old? If she sees a tree does she want to climb it? If she sees a building does she want to spray paint it? If she sees something that scares her does she run away or is she drawn to it?
Step 4: How does your character walk?
You can tell a lot about someone by the way they walk. Is it a confident stride, a cocky strut, sexy sashay, slow saunter, shy shuffle? Walk like your character. I bet you can tell your spouse’s or kid’s or mom’s walk from far away. It’s distinctive. And it says something about them. It’s partly body type and skeletal frame but it’s also personality and perhaps pain, either physical or emotional. Walk up to a full-length mirror so you can see your character’s walk.
Step 5: How does your character talk?
Is there anything distinctive about her voice? An accent? A stutter? Particularly nasal or a low, gravely voice? An unusual word or phrase she uses a lot to describe something or express surprise? There should be something that lets us “hear” her so that when she’s talking you don’t even need to write, “Sudipta said,” because we know it’s Sudipta. That’s when you’ve created a distinct, unique voice for your character. Also, when does your character talk? Is this a shy or outspoken character? Is her voice soft or loud? Does she yell? Ever? If so, when? All of these elements reflect her personality. Talk or whisper or yell out loud so you can hear your character’s voice.
Step 6: How does your character feel and think?
Now that you’re getting the hang of their body, get in touch with their emotions and personalities. You know what they see and where they are and how they see it. How does that make them feel? Do they sweat? Startle? Run and hide? Push themselves forward no matter what the danger? How do they react to being short or tall or poor or an outcast? Are they defiant, depressed, determined? And why?
Take a Myers Briggs test from your character’s perspective. Figure out what “love language” they speak, i.e., what motivates them (from Gary Chapman’s book, The 5 Love Languages):
–touch (e.g., hugs)
Also, do some research if you need to discover specific aspects of your character — how does divorce or a new baby affect a 5 year old, 8 year old, 13 year old?
Often, our past experience helps shape who we are, which leads us to the next step….
Step 7: Where has your character walked before?
If you know your character’s past and who they are, then you’ll have a good feel for how they’ll react to situations and what motivates them. The classic example is Harry Potter. What kind of background must we know in order to buy the idea that an eleven year old boy would fight the supreme wizard who threatens the world? We had to see the horrible Dursleys with whom Harry lived — in that spidery closet under the stairs — and know that his parents were killed by Voldemoort even as they gave their lives to save their son. On top of that, the only family Harry has now, his friends at Hogwarts, are in imminent danger of being destroyed by the dark lord. Add to that a suspected protective power hidden in that scar on his forehead and, OK, I’m sold.
Step 8: How does your character act?
See above. Once you know steps 1 – 7, then you know how your character acts. And if you ever start doubting or wondering, put those Keds , Crocs or whatever back on and get in touch with that character again. Talk to him. Ask her questions. Hang out with them. It’ll be like visiting an old friend, or frenemy, and after you’ve had a quick chance to catch up, you can step forward.
P.S. You might want to make sure your character likes to eat and drink things that you enjoy, since that’s a part of becoming your character, too. A favorite part of research! And not just for me — notice how Kami Kinard has a cupcake theme in The Boy Problem. I predict Hot Tamale candies in a future novel….
Kathryn Erskine is the author of five children’s novels including National Book Award winner, Mockingbird, the recent Jane Addams Peace Award honor book Seeing Red, and her upcoming release, The Badger Knight. She draws on her life stories and world events in her writing and is currently working on several more novels and picture books. You can find out more about her on her WEBSITE!
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