Writing Secrets: What does your character do in his spare time?

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

What books does your character read, if any?

We all know, or we should, that one of the most crucial parts of writing fiction involves developing your characters. Build them, grow them into whole beings with desires, secrets, fears and flaws.

That’s fine. But in order to write from their perspective, you need to inhabit them. You need to feel what it’s like to be them. That’s easier when they’re similar to you, and share the same background and influences. But how do you “become” a character who is very different from you?

You need to do a great deal more work on them than on the character who is familiar to you. You could take a leaf out of EL Doctorow’s book and allow them to communicate with you in lengthy internal monologues before you begin writing.

But here’s a trick I learnt. It’s not the whole answer, but it has worked for me. Read the books and newspapers your character might have read. If they have immersed themselves in philosophy, you should dip into the kinds of philosophers they would have read. Not cover to cover, necessarily, but enough to gain a sense of their influences, their thinking, and just enough to give you a feel for the kind of people they are.

If they read graphic novels, you need to as well. You need to have a sense of the genre, how it makes your character think and feel. It will also give you access to the kind of details which will bring your character and story alive. Once you form an impression of the reading that would have had an impact on his life, you start to get a feel for the person.

It’s also useful to read newspapers or magazines from the town and period a character existed within – to gain a sense of his context.

This is equally applicable to non-fiction, of course. It’s amazing the insight you’ll gain from reading the books and newspapers your real source would have read.

Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: Marathon running and the joy of writing

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