Digging for secrets – who are we writing about?

You’re a great listener. Of-course you are, you’re a writer. Put you beside somebody new and in no time, they’re telling you about their family and job, their fears and ambitions, all sorts of things other people might miss. We listen kindly, helpfully, but part of us is always watchful for details that distinguish this individual from the rest of us, that hook into the heart.

Those details go into our mental attics in case they turn out to be useful later in our writing. That later time is now when we sit down to discover who we’re writing about.


The better you know your main characters before you start writing chapters, the faster your draft will flow and the better by miles it will be.

Readers assume that our published pages arrive golden from the heavens and all we do is gather them, but everybody prepares.

A typical ‘character interview’ can start like this:

  • External description: height, weight etc.
  • Name
  • Age
  • Address
  • Place of birth
  • Ethnicity

We want to know our main characters better than we know our best friends so try it this way instead. You’re in your favourite writing spot feeling relaxed and comfortable. You have your writing bits and pieces with you. Nobody is ever going to see what you’re writing unless you choose to make it public so you have that privacy that lets you write freely and happily.  Invite your main character to come and have a chat.

It all goes down in writing, even the tricky bit at the beginning when they’re maybe too busy/shy/hungover/exhausted to want to talk to you and you coax them into it …

‘You’ is your fictional character invite them to answer these questions for you:

How do you look? To yourself? To other people? How do you feel about how you look? What would you change if you could? What are you happy with? Talk about what you are wearing today? What are you happiest wearing? Unhappiest? When have you been most/least proud of how you look?

What is your name? Do you think it suits you? Why/not? Do you have a nickname? How did you get it? How do you feel about it? What nickname would you rather have if you could choose? Why?

Your age? How do you feel about your age? What age would you like to be? When was or will be your best age? How do you feel about getting older? How is your health? How do you feel about being ill/ well?

Where do you live? Why do you live there? What is it like – your home and the wider community? Do you like it there? Is it your choice or someone else’s? How long have you lived there? What would you change if you could? Where would you ideally like to live? Why?

Who do you live with? Chat about the relationships and how you feel about them? Why do you live with these people, or alone? Is it by choice? Has it always been that way? Will this story change or challenge that? In what way?

Where were you born? How did you feel about it when you were little? How do you feel about that place now? What accent do you have? Has it always been the same? Are you speaking in your first language? How do you feel about that?

Tell me about the family you were born with: mother, father, siblings and any other family members important to your development and/or the story. Who is most remote from you and why? Who worries you most and why? Who do you feel safest with/ least safe with and why? How do you think they feel about you? Why?

The answers to any of these questions could fill a week. The essence is to meander. You can keep coming back to this throughout the week and catch whatever comes up about musical tastes, what’s in your character’s bag and pockets, where they go on their holidays, favourite biscuits and so on, it’s all gold dust.

Let your characters, one by one, take you by the hand through whatever is important to them in their own words.


This comes from one of many useful exercises in What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter:

Make a list with dates of all the places you have lived. Treat yourself to some time remembering each one in turn and then describe it in writing, concentrating maybe on a room or two. This is one of those memory lane exercises where details come to you with increasing richness even if they hadn’t crossed your mind in years. Take your time and, as you write, notice your own feelings about that place and time. Maybe you find yourself thinking of someone you remember, a hug or laugh you had together then, a great meal, a birthday?

Getting close to your past self is a great route into being comfortable with your characters’ deepest thoughts and emotions. In the late 1990s, when I was learning from Bernard Kops, he’d say time and again ‘Go deeper’. I was too busy playing with words and trying to be funny to know what he meant but deeper is where fiction plays its best trick, the one that hooks into readers’ hearts and takes them on the emotional adventures they long for.

Happy writing! More next week.


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