Kathryn Erskine: Walking Around in Your Characters’ Shoes

Kathryn walks in a sheep field like her MC from The Badger Knight.

Kathryn walks in a sheep field like her MC from The Badger Knight.

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:

MikeIn 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:

Quaking (See the boots?)

Quaking (See the boots?)

Poor?

Outcast?

Foreign?

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.

 IMG_0212Step 3:  What does your character see as she’s standing in those shoes? 

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):

Kathryn's latest novel: The Badger Knight

Kathryn’s latest novel: The Badger Knight

–gifts

–quality time

–praise

–service

–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.

 Happy trails!

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….

IMG_0753_2

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! 

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Kathy’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check the Facebook group or your email for the password.

If you haven’t registered for #KidlitSummerSchool yet click HERE.

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184 comments on “Kathryn Erskine: Walking Around in Your Characters’ Shoes

  1. Such a great way to start! Now, let’s find those shoes…

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  2. My main character wears boots a lot of the time because the story takes place during a snowy winter, but I haven’t thought about exactly what kind of boots they are. Good stuff–thank you!

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  3. Oh, this is a wonderful exercise–and I knew immediately Nike athletic shoes for my guy, a little scuffed. And because this character actually *does* have a sudden vision loss, those Nikes have to show signs of him compensating…now I need to walk around a bit and see how! Thanks!

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  4. diandramae says:

    I love this post. It reminds me of the character interviews I used to do with my seventh grade English students. One of the best thing about creating a character is getting to know them!

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  5. Shoes, Myers-Briggs, standing, walking — not the simple hair color, height…surfacey (new word) stuff. Good stuff — really good stuff. Thanks Kathryn.

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  6. judyrubin13 says:

    I have been walking in Chasya’s pinching new shoes, bare feet, and boots pulled from a dead soldier for weeks. Today I understood their significence. Thank you Kathryn for the insight.

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  7. Great ideas–thanks for the helpful post.

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  8. doreend says:

    Your post is so full of ideas to “play” with and expand a character. Felt like I was playing dress-up while I read it! There’s lots to do…..

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  9. What a wonderfully crafted challenge! I wouldn’t have thought to immerse myself in my character through shoes (or lack there of). Thanks for the great post and for challenging me to consider my character(s) in a new way!

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  10. Kim Mounsey says:

    Love this post. I hadn’t considered what my character was wearing on her feet, but after talking it over with her I have discovered she is wearing odd socks and ood boots – hand-me-downs from her twin brothers who each magaed to lose one of their boots – luckily for her one left and one right.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. So happy to get to know my characters on a different level from a different perspective… Thanks for the post!!

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  12. marciecolleen says:

    What a great post! Thank you! As a former actress, this feels like Method Acting for Writers. In fact, I’ll be teaching an Acting for Writers workshop in September for NJ SCBWI. I would love to bounce ideas off of you!

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  13. hmmmmm says:

    I got mugged once when I was in my twenties and my response — to feel tougher — was to go out a buy a pair of cowboy boots.
    Like the shoe emphasis.
    The guy I’m working on at the moment is a sloth though, so maybe I’ll have to try to think about what he WOULD wear if he DID wear shoes…

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Kathy Raggio says:

    Thanks Kathryn! Love the shoe idea. Lots to think about.

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  15. marciecolleen says:

    What a great post! As a former actress, it reminds me of Method Acting for writers. In fact, I am currently developing an Acting for Writers workshop for NJ SCBWI that I’ll teach in September. Maybe I could pick your brain? 🙂

    Like

  16. joannesher says:

    What a fabulous post! So much to ponder! Cant wait to dig in and do that worksheet. And by the way? Hannah is a flip flop girl (or barefoot), and Gerald would wear oxfords, I think. 🙂

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  17. joannesher says:

    What a fabulous post! If I weren’t in a hotel room with two sleeping kids I’d hop up and get some serious writing done! But at least I can ponder. 🙂 by the way, Hannah is a flipflop girl (or barefoot) but her brother Gerald is never without his oxfords. 🙂

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  18. sharon giltrow says:

    what a great post really makes you think about your character can’t wait to try those shoes on

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  19. Dawn Young says:

    Great advice. It’s amazing what shoes can tell you about a person.

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  20. Well, today I’m walking in flip flops but my MC walks around in turquoise flats.

    Thanks Sudipta and Kami for the PDFs!

    Like

  21. Sheri Dillard says:

    Great post! Thanks, Kathryn!

    Funny thing — as I was thinking about your questions for one of my characters, another character (from a different story) popped into my head. The thought of those two silly PB characters being together made me laugh out loud. 🙂

    Like

  22. Noel Csermak says:

    Just by reading this post my imagination has kicked into gear and the path has become clear. Thank you for the map.

    Like

  23. This was so helpful!! I love that it’s got me thinking in all sorts of new ways about my characters and really will go the distance in bringing them to life!! So appreciative of your time! Thank you!

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  24. jmvandenberg says:

    This was a wonderful first post. My characters live in the 1890s and by just researching shoes of the time period I learned a lot more about my characters. The exercise sheet revealed a lot also and I feel that I understand my characters and their thinking much better. All this and it is only day 1. I look forward to the rest of summer school.

    Like

  25. katiegast says:

    Thanks for the post. I finally figured out how to get the homework. You gave us a lot of great tips.

    Like

  26. winemama says:

    Great post!

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  27. Juliana Lee says:

    This reminds me of a writing activity I used to do with my second graders. I would bring in a collection of various shoes (baby booties, slippers, work boots, rain boots, cowboy boots, tennis shoes, heels, sandals, etc) and the students took turns ‘walking a mile’ in that person’s shoes then writing a paragraph about that person. It was lots of fun, now I get to try it for myself! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  28. I love this exercise…and shoes! Thanks so very much Kathryn for sharing your wisdom! I think from now on I’ll wear the same shoes as my character while writing!

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  29. Sandy Perlic says:

    Thanks for the great food for thought! I especially liked the question about how our characters walk – it’s surprising how that one question reveals so much.

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  30. Thanks, Kathy. Lots to think about. I found it easier to answer for my protagonist’s nemesis, so I guess that means I have more work to do.

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  31. Thank you! I am pushed to think in new ways already. I love it!

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  32. These exercises are great and I can’t wait to try them out! I was thinking this would be the perfect time to start getting to know this character named “Fiona” who has been floating around in my mind. And then I realized, HOW IRONIC–because Fiona is a mermaid and has no feet! Ha! So, I won’t walk in her shoes but rather swim in her fins?! Thanks, Kathryn!

    Liked by 1 person

  33. Ann Palmer says:

    This exercise helped me to discover a clothing error in my story. It was a small but important detail. that will change how my characters react in a certain setting and situation. Good stuff, here! Thank you for the post.

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  34. Aimee Norris-Haburjak says:

    Great lesson! What’s there not to love about shoes? Shoes have a great deal more “soul” behind them now. Thanks:)

    Like

  35. Linda says:

    Great lesson! Thanks!

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  36. So much to contemplate. I never realized how large my character was going to become!

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  37. Jocelyn Rish says:

    It’s funny, I don’t know what shoes my MC would wear on a normal day (need to think about that!), but about halfway through the book she goes on a scavenger hunt and wants to wear sexy high heels to impress her crush, but ultimately wears comfortable sneakers because she’s the practical type at heart. So I did think about shoes linked with character a little. Now to make sure I’m thinking about the rest of Kathryn’s excellent steps. Thanks, Kathryn!

    Like

  38. jodimckay says:

    Love this lesson! Such great suggestions on how to get to know someone. Made me realize that most of my main characters are boys. Gotta get some heels in there!

    Like

  39. lisakwillard says:

    Love this! I’ve been drawing my MC so already thinking of shoes. This list of questions has had me thinking of so much more all day/night long. Thanks!

    Like

  40. lisakwillard says:

    Love this! I’ve been drawing my MC, so already thinking of shoes. This great list of questions has had me thinking of so much more all day/night. Thanks!

    Like

  41. Russ says:

    This post was a great way to start our summer schooling. I’ve already learned something new.

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  42. What a great post! The more we know in the beginning about the people who inhabit our stories, the easier it is to write about their lives…

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  43. Thanks for the in-depth questions. I knew both my characters wore oxfords (1950’s) but what I didn’t know (before thinking about this) was that one girl was wearing the other girl’s castoffs. Thanks, Kathy!

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  44. Love this post – really makes me think more about my characters and how I’m making their personality come across. Thanks!

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  45. Vijaya says:

    Thank you for this wonderful exercise! The physicality of it makes characters so much more real.

    Like

  46. This is so great. It takes the saying, “IF you only walked a mile in my shoes” to a whole new level.
    As a person, we often don’t know what someone else has gone through or what they might be feeling, but as writers… We are multi-personalities people.

    Like

  47. stacey jacobs says:

    I appreciated this exercise because my character puts his feet in another characters shoes to check for fit, and as we all know, that never feels just right…

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  48. Jessica Jordan says:

    Love this post! Just started a new story and am still fleshing out my characters. I’m going to work on this technique when I’m writing this weekend.

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  49. Beth Anderson says:

    What a great post! This definitely goes into my “characterization” file! thanks!

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  50. writersideup says:

    I am unabashedly addicted to tools and lists, and you are all offering up fantastic stuff! Thank you for all this 😀

    Like

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