25th Trillium Award


Share |

Inner Views

With: Paul Blackwell, Krista Bridge, Scott Carter, Craig Davidson, Brian Fawcett, Meaghan McIsaac, Mary Novik, Noami Ragen, Richard Scarsbrook, Brad Smith, Ian Thornton, Elizabeth Wein, and Lucie Wilk

This month for Fiction Craft, I asked a group of authors the question: What methods do you use to get into the mindset of your characters?

I?ll freely admit that around this I happily take the low road. I have never done anything ?extreme? like sleeping in a jail cell or climbing a giant oak tree (as have two of my characters) to get into the minds of my characters. I?m willing to entertain the idea that my characters might be better drawn if I did such things, but then I look at the great science fiction and fantasy novels. Novels like Ender?s Game ? about a boy being trained to lead an attack against an alien race ? or Watership Down ? about the life of a warren of rabbits - afforded their authors no opportunity for experiential research, yet both are infused with brilliant characterizations. If I had more time, I might do more experiential research, but I suspect it would become a distraction ? a reason not to write. And I always try to push things that get in the way of writing out of the way. So to get into the mindsets of my characters, I might do a little reading on what it is like to be, say, a prison inmate or a teenage girl, but I?d eventually let my imagination take over. No one?s experience of the world is the same, yet people are all very similar at certain levels. What?s important to me is that the characters have integrity. I do like creating exceptional characters, and I don?t think there is a way to research being exceptional. So to render characters, in general, I draw on my own experiences and imagine how my characters might react to the specific pressures that I put on them. And if I have set their moral compasses right, they will eventually tell me who they are and show me what they must, specifically, do that is exceptional. This is where they usually prove themselves to be better (or worse) than an average Joe like me. Beyond this, if I discover I need to know something practical about a character, I research it as I write, but I try to never let such research impede the writing.

Now let?s find out how some other authors get inside their characters? heads.


Paul Blackwell is author of the novel Undercurrent. He lives in Montreal, QC.

Authors are a bit like magicians, I like to think. And as such, getting into characters? minds and bringing them to life is our best trick. But it?s really more about disappearing than anything else. Readers want to believe in a story, not in its author. So we have to hide, not just in the shadows, but completely out of sight.

This vanishing act is the most elusive part of the fiction-writing process, I believe. You first need to loosen your grip on the story enough to let your characters surprise you, which of course is really just you surprising yourself. This means letting go of all your precious plotting and other busy work. Then, seeing the world through the eyes of your character feels like part meditation, part astral projection. Or like a terrible self-inflicted case of multiple personality disorder. It depends.

I like it best when things feel totally out of control, like I?m just a stenographer trying to keep up with everything that?s happening. That?s when I start having the most fun. Once the characters take charge, you no longer feel the burden of having to invent everything. Then it?s all about the typing, and I type pretty fast.

I must confess to otherwise having no other earthly idea how it?s done; my method is to just work and work until I fall into the necessary trance. To get to this state however, I first have to pass through a great deal of misery, frustration, and uncertainty. That part never varies. But then one day I?ll wake up and it?s as if the characters have filled the pages themselves. I then have only the foggiest memory of having ever been involved. That?s when I know I?ve sufficiently disappeared. Poof, I?m gone! Just like a magician.


Krista Bridge is author of the novel The Eliot Girls and the short-fiction collection The Virgin Spy. She lives in Toronto, ON.

Learning about your characters and who they are is a long process of discovery. There isn?t a concrete process I follow, but there are certain things I do that help me uncover the full picture of my characters. When my writing is going well, I feel that I?m learning about the characters rather than dictating the terms of their existence. Describing what characters look like helps me see them as real people. Their physical appearances?features, clothing, comportment?become a reflection of their internal traits. A character who has long messy hair she never brushes is going to be quite different than one with a tidy blonde bob. I also tend to write a lot of backstory that never makes it into the final product?although I don?t necessarily realize while I?m writing that it won?t outlast the edits. It?s useful to write significant events in that character?s life, things that have happened in the recent past or maybe longer ago in the character?s childhood. These interludes of backstory might be as long as thirty pages or as short as three, and they might or might not have any bearing on what?s happening in the book, but they add to the character?s history and therefore his or her reality in my mind. I also tend to imagine (often while I?m not actually trying to write?I?ll be out walking my dog or taking a shower or looking after my kids) a conversation that character might have with another in the novel. I jot those conversation bits on a piece of paper, and even if I never use them, they help solidify that character further.

When I sit down to write, I get into the character?s mindset by reading through the most recent sections I?ve written for that character. I try to end each day?s writing with notes for what?s to come in the next few paragraphs?it?s much easier to pick up in the middle of a scene or a conversation than to start entirely fresh on a new section. When I?m really struggling, I?ll often pick up a book?either the one I?m reading at the moment or one I admire?and I?ll read for a little while. I often find that once I?ve done that for a bit, my mind flips over into my own book. Sometimes you have to stop trying to think in order to think.


Scott Carter is author of the novels Barrett Fuller?s Secret and Blind Luck. He lives in Toronto, ON.

I love this question because characterization is the most important part of novels for me. Both as a reader and writer. I root for people, admire people, dislike people and am fascinated by people, so if the texture and detailing of a character isn?t compelling I start thinking about other things.

For me, dialogue is the pillar of a character?s mindset. If I know how they sound, what their verbal ticks are and whether they are on or off rhythm in a conversation then I?ve reached full control of their ideology. So I?ll often start by writing scenes with just dialogue until the character?s next thought flows.

Second for me in creating a character is putting careful thought into the motivation. If you know what drives a character, that will be an organic guide to whether you are being truthful to a person with the mindset you have created. And that?s paramount. Nothing shuts a reader down faster than contrived.

The next step is visualization. Having spent a lot of time writing scripts this is natural for me at this point, but I recommend it for anyone. If you can?t picture every detail of the character you are working on, keep developing the character.

Visualization flows naturally into details. What music does the character listen to? How do they dress? What are their tastes in film? Any question you can ask is useful. I know many authors keep character journals that answer all the questions they can think of. I don?t work that way, but what I?m suggesting is the same idea, so whether you keep it in your head or write these details down, they will lead you to a character?s mindset.


Craig Davidson is the author of the novels Cataract City and The Fighter, and the short-story collection Rust and Bone. He lives in Toronto, ON.

For the most part, I find that my characters' mindsets often mimic my own. I'm generally interested in presenting conflicted but compassionate individuals, people who are flawed but somehow aware of their shortcomings, fighting mightily against those flaws while sometimes (often?) failing to quite surmount their inborn emotional directives.

So I try to think: What would I (or someone, maybe a friend who is very much like me) do in these situations? And frequently, depending on the physical or emotional crucible I've put that character in, well, the response isn't the right one. Or not quite. It may be right in that moment, it may be necessary even, but the repercussions of that act in that bubble of time can be dire. And that character has to live with it, and the damage it incurs.

Personally, I always get a little ticked when someone says, in conversation: If that was ME, I'd have never done that. To me, that requires a deep sense of yourself?a sense that nobody really possesses until you're put in a position that test what you perceive to be your innate goodness or reasonableness or compassion, whatever. My feeling is: I don't know how I'll react when I'm really up against it. Will I do the right thing? Or will I do 70 percent of the right thing, even, and will that lingering 30% haunt me or have repercussions I couldn't possibly imagine? I think people set themselves up to be shocked and disappointed in themselves when they're so sure of their hypothetical response to stressors. Because really, how well do any of us know ourselves? We hold this picture of ourselves and hope to pass through life never having to grapple with or confront the ways in which we may fail that image.

So, long story short, that's the general mindset of my characters: they try mightily to do good but are constantly fearful they may do wrong (or have somehow, awfully, already done wrong), either accidentally or by steering against their best intentions in that critical moment.

Unless I'm writing a sociopath. That requires different methods altogether ... but that's another story, for another time.


Brian Fawcett is the author of numerous books of non-fiction and the new novel The Last of the Lumbermen. He lives in Toronto, ON.

All characters in fiction are partly based on real-world people writers have encountered, and partly projections of the author her/ or himself. To suggest that a writer gets into a character's mindset as if that character is autonomous has always struck me as creative-writing school malarkey. I could tell you where every single character in my fiction comes from if I had a gun stuck in my ear, and so can most intelligent writers. But very few writers will reveal the sources of their fictional characters with any candour, because there are nearly always issues of discretion involved, and sometimes legal and other risks are involved. When I wrote about things I learned while working in maximum security prisons, for example, I ran what I'd written about past the real world people I'd depicted, even though I'd changed names and altered physical appearances. Occasionally I'd have to make changes, too, sometimes because I'd inadvertently risked their safety by being too literal. That said, I try to invent as little as I can, because when I do that, I'm all alone inside my own imagination, and that is the place where I'm most likely to get things badly wrong. This quote from Joseph Conrad explains why better than I can:

?All my moral and intellectual being is penetrated by an invincible conviction that whatever falls under the dominion of our senses must be in nature and, however exceptional, cannot differ in its essence from all the other effects of the visible and tangible world of which we are a self-conscious part. The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is -- marvels and mysteries acting upon our emotions and intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost justify the conception of life as an enchanted state.? - The Shadow Line (1920)


Meaghan McIsaac is author of the novel Urgle. She lives in Toronto, ON.

This answer may seem silly, or uninspiring, but its the result of a lot of my own careful thinking. I was nervous to answer this because all I could think was, what the heck do I know? I've read all the standard advice -- read everything you can get your hands on, make sure you know your world (historical? Futuristic? Fantastic?) inside and out, etc. But that?s for writing in general. Getting into the head of a character? That?s a special thing that happens between two minds ? your?s, and your character's. And I think it's different for everyone.

So, how do I get into the mindset of my characters? Boredom.

I know how that sounds, but after careful consideration I've come to realize it's the truth for me. You know how when you were a kid, you'd be coming up with make-believe games -- you'd BE a Power Ranger and sock your brother when you were tired of watching Power Rangers. Why? Because you can only watch so many episodes before you're bored and want to do something else.

The same holds true now. When I'm bored, I come up with something more exciting to do which usually involves being someone else in a land far away. On the commute to work, tossing a ball to my dog at the park, waiting for a football game to end so I can watch what I like -- this is when me and a new character get really well acquainted. Eventually, they take on a life of their own and all I can do is ride along with them.

And all this is well and good for initially finding a character, but what happens when you're halfway through the story and you've hit a wall and you're so sick of your character that you don't even know if you can keep going?

Simple. Get bored. Quick.

Go for a long walk, take a train ride to go see your parents, clean the fridge -- don't bring an ipod, or anything else that might fend off boredom. Just a notepad. Now think. Just let your mind go wherever it has to go and eventually, you and your character will get back to getting along because when you're bored, all you've got is each other.


Mary Novik is author of the novels Muse and Conceit. She lives in Vancouver, BC.

Getting into the mind of a literary character is a gradual process, just as it is with real people. My biggest wow moment in my understanding of Solange Le Blanc in Muse came when I was on the secret tour of the popes? palace in Avignon. I stared at the bare walls of a basement chamber trying to imagine the décor of the Pope?s bathing room as the guide was describing it. Then she led the way up a narrow corkscrew staircase?the only one that climbs six floors to the roof of the palace?and we emerged in the Pope?s bedchamber, with its decorated walls. Next to it was the even finer room where Pope Clement VI slept, with its magnificent frescoes of a stag hunt, hawking, fishing, gathering fruit, and the other secular pleasures of a seigneur. This room has always puzzled historians. Why did the Pope have such pagan art on his walls?

The main feature of the Stag Room was the Pope?s bed where, in medieval fashion, he sat to receive important guests. Although the bed is long gone, it was shorter than normal because he slept upright in case Christ arrived to claim him in the night. However, nothing else about this room was theological. Reports of luxurious bed hangings?crimson velvet and green taffeta?rival the tales of lavish banquets in the palace. The Avignon Pope lived more like a king than the spiritual leader of the Christian church.

I wondered what went on in this bedchamber in the 14th century. What would my character Solange have felt the first time she was brought here? I decided that a woman who had ascended so many stairs would realize that although the Pope was an immensely powerful man, he was also carnal and emotionally needy. Exhilarated by her own power over him, she would embrace the opportunity to become Pope Clement VI?s favourite, the most influential woman in Avignon.


Noami Ragen is author of numerous novels, including The Sisters Weiss, The Tenth Song and The Saturday Wife, as well as the play Women?s Minyan. She lives in Jerusalem, Israel.

When I first began writing fiction, what was most difficult was dialogue. It always sounded so stiff and unreal, and the speakers never came alive as human beings.

To counter this, I began to listen to conversations in restaurants and buses between strangers, taking copious notes. I realized that spoken language provides a rare and invaluable insight into who a person is: his/her level of education, interests, character.

I also understood that if I didn?t put my ?thumb on the scale? and demand characters behave as conveniently as possible to push my plot forward; if I simply listened to them they--quite shockingly I might add-- began to speak to me, and then all I needed to do was take down dictation.

However, I also learned that when you allow a character to behave anyway they please, surprising things happen. For example, in my novel Sotah, based on a newspaper account of an adulterous affair between ultra-Orthodox married neighbors, the cuckolded husband was described as a boring loser. Perfect for my plot. However, when I tried to write him that way, he refused to cooperate. Listening to him, I found that he was devoted, kind, creative, and loving. I simply fell in love with him. This left me in a real pickle plot-wise.

I considered throwing out what the character was telling me and rewriting a more convenient husband, but then I stopped. I went with the truth of what I was hearing, and in the end the plot became richer, deeper, and more interesting. The relationship took on its own life, nothing like the one in the newspaper saga.

Here was a young, bored, innocent girl in an arranged marriage who couldn?t see or appreciate the goodness in the loving man she had married until she experienced the betrayal of a man who was his opposite.
The book stayed on the bestseller list for 93 weeks.


Richard Scarsbrook is author of the novels Nothing Man and the Purple Zero, Cheeseburger Subversive, Fearless Bipeds and The Monkeyface Chronicles. He lives in Toronto, ON.

In introducing a character in the context of a story, I try to use as many of my senses as I can when creating an image of a character, much like one does when describing a place or creating a setting. An author doesn?t have to show the reader everything about a character; the important part is picking the right details of appearance, mannerisms, actions, and speech that best capture the uniqueness of a particular individual.

Once you have established some kind of physical presence for your character, and the reader has an image of the character that they can relate to, then it?s time for the more important task of making the character a believable human being (or an alien being, or zombie, or biplane-flying beagle, or whatever).

What a character looks like, dresses like, moves like, sounds like, and even smells like is important initially, but what the character SAYS (and how they say it!) and what the character DOES (and how they do it) are the most critical elements in developing a real understanding of any given character.

What people DO and SAY is what they ARE (at least at the moment that they are doing it and/or saying it). As a writer, understanding what motivates a person to do what they do, good or bad, and being aware of this motivation as you write about them, will make what the character does seem more real.

The most important thing to remember when you are creating a character is this: BE THERE with the character. If your character is experiencing bereavement, disappointment, heartbreak, or some other form of sadness, tears should be welling up in your eyes as you write the scene in which they feel this way. If something funny is happening to the character, you should be laughing as you write.

You should have a clear picture in your mind of places and people you are writing about as you write about them; but, even better, try to INHABIT your characters as they move through the situations you?ve created for them. If you are THERE with your characters within the framework of your story, chances are that your readers will be there too.

So. . . What characters DO, and what they SAY, is what they ARE.
And. . . BE THERE with your characters as you write them.
And. . . PRESTO! Your readers will care about your characters, and will want to know what happens to them.


Brad Smith is author of numerous novels, including Shoot the Dog, Crow?s Landing, All Hat and Busted Flush. He lives in Ontario near the north shore of Lake Erie.

When writing a novel, I?m a big proponent of developing background for characters, and not just the main characters. I will do this knowing full well that ninety per cent of that background will never make it into the book. The history, once I have it, informs me who that person is ? where he came from and why he behaves as he does. If a man is a nasty prick, I want to know what went on in his life to make him that. Was he abandoned at an early age, beaten by a drunken uncle, raised by rabid skunks? People don?t arrive fully formed, and it?s the molding that is sometimes more interesting than the finished product.

Motivation is also important. Everyone has a reason for doing what they do ? no matter how small or trite the action might be. A man ties his shoes so he doesn?t trip. A woman applies make-up because she cares about her appearance. Conversely, a woman may eschew make-up because she doesn?t care, or perhaps she cares more about something else at that particular moment. There are few unconscious actions in life and little things matter when writing. Lives are made up of mundane moments and ? like it or not ? most people have feet of clay. I prefer to write about ordinary people thrown into extraordinary situations. After all, without the Civil War, Abe Lincoln would have been just another president.


Ian Thornton is author of the novel The Great & Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms. He lives in Toronto, ON.

We are all natural mimics to a degree. One needs to channel these abilities. Some, the lucky ones, write from a swaggering confident stance of being able to impersonate physically and verbally; some have an inferiority complex and pick up on others' mannerisms, speech emphasis, dialect and tics in order to (consciously or subconsciously) seek approval or to minimise their own differences. Well-versed natural mimics manage to get into the mindset of their characters so very easily. It is what they are doing naturally each and every day anyway whenever they converse or interact with someone. It is second nature to them. And because they can often find fun in this process, it can make for very entertaining writing. The shackles are off, and when one stops worrying about the minutiae and the small errors, interesting and ambitious thoughts run amok, as they should be encouraged to do, while being minimally aware of boring old 'discipline.' It is easier to edge back later in editing.

The blissed out and altered states achieved by Byron, Shelley and Jim Morrison may have produced great writing, but for most mere mortals, it is not advised, unless the character whose mindset one is aiming to replicate is an utter degenerate. It would probably explain how Bruce Robinson awoke with his face wedged into the keys on his battered typewriter, surrounded by broken glass, empty bottles of fine wine, precipitously steeped ashtrays, and crucially, the first fifty pages of his Withnailian masterpiece. I would suggest, in most cases, not to try this at home. Though it might be fun to try once when the kids are in bed.

Being mildly schizophrenic (or even better quadrophenic) can certainly help. Have different characters inhabit different areas of your brain. This part of writing really is the equivalent of playing chess against oneself, or perhaps is simply an extension of sitting in front of a mirror in an empty room, and pulling faces and speaking in strange voices. Are these the actions of a normal person? I think madness is an absolutely key element within a lot of writers anyway; we have to be so to even consider, in the first place, that complete strangers (never mind close friends) might be interested in what we have to say. Fully embracing and proudly and overtly celebrating a psychosis of some sorts certainly adds a solid armour of confidence that is required to tackle and complete such a daunting and often ridiculously delusional task as writing a novel. This is all the more necessary when one has to enter the head of a fictional character and to then ask him or her to act, speak, walk, love, kill, fuck, eat an ice-cream cone, plant a small tree, play a slide trombone. If one is timid about one's oddness, it must be so much more of a difficult process. Maybe impossible. Perhaps it is the Englishman in me, for we are nothing if not a nation of mild to vicious eccentrics. We are shoulders back, chest out and chin up about it. But it is a Greek, whose words I would recommend recalling; those of Aristotle. "No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness."


Elizabeth Wein is author of numerous works of fiction including the novels Rose Under Fire, Code Name Verity and The Lion Hunters: The Arthurian/Aksumite Cycle. She lives in Scotland.

I am afraid this is all a bit mysterious. There is sorcery in it.

From a very early age ? from two or three ? I pretended I was other people, and they were people in books. Little Bear, Madeline, and Mary Frances from The Mary Frances Cookbook were my heroes. But I didn?t just admire them?I became these characters. If you called me ?Elizabeth? when I was being Mary Frances, I would correct you. I thought their thoughts.

This pleasure in ?pretending? to be other people lies behind all my fictional characters. When I am involved in writing a novel, in my head I really do become those characters; I think their thoughts. This isn?t a method that I?ve developed; it?s something I?ve been doing throughout my life. Verity, the title character of Code Name Verity, also does this?I used my own experience in creating her, though in Verity?s case her ?pretending? leads her to take on different identities as a spy rather than creating characters on a page.

It?s my main way of getting in the head of my major characters, but to a certain extent I also use it to get inside the head of supporting characters. It is pretty characteristic of my writing that I am incapable of creating a straightforward villain. This is because I always end up trying to put myself into their heads to find out what drives them. And then I discover that they are protecting their family, or they?re jealous of someone, or they?re scared of failure.

For Rose Under Fire, I gave the title character a Pennsylvania Dutch background very similar to my own, which made it easy for me to reference her past. I just altered a few place names and used my own familiar landscape to define Rose?s. Not only did this give Rose?s life a very distinct cultural flavour, but it helped me to colour Rose?s narrative with specific and individual details.

Here are a few things I do as exercises to get into my characters? heads:

  • I act out scenes (when no one is looking!)
  • I improvise conversations, aloud, between characters (when no one is listening!)
  • I draw my characters. This is something I did all the time up to about five years ago; I?m not sure why I stopped, but I kind of miss it. Drawing my characters helped to fix them in my head and was also a productive thing to do if I found myself stuck in a patch of writer?s block.
  • I visit scenes and settings appropriate to the book. An airfield, a hill fort, a windy beach, a castle dungeon, a train station, a ferry boat?putting yourself in your character?s shoes is a great way to get inside his or her head. I also find I have epiphanies about character motivation if I actually visit a setting (or something like it) for my story.
  • And finally ? I touch things. I try to find objects that my characters might have used or seen or held?little things, like an appropriate coin, a compass, a handkerchief, a key, a button, a shell. Touching things helps to ground me and to create a kind of shadowy reality for my character ? sympathetic magic, making the imaginary character more real by linking him or her to a real object.


Lucie Wilk is author of the novel The Strength of Bone. She lives in London, UK.

I create ?what if? situations and try to imagine how my character would react to them. I?m grateful if this reaction is different to my own reaction: this means the character lives and breathes independently from me.

I allow a personal history to develop for each character: what was her childhood like? Her parents? Any siblings? Any challenges faced growing up? Any traumas endured? This usually informs her take on any situation encountered during the course of the story.

I give them space. Sometimes I find characters, like real people, need space to develop their own personalities. I often find that my original point of view character gets a bit stifled by me constantly occupying their mind. They don?t have a chance to grow into their own. Often this contrasts strikingly with the supporting characters who have been allowed to do their own thing--be a bit naughty or nasty, take risks, develop bad habits. Part way through the story I often notice that these are the characters who are suddenly much more interesting, and who are more fallible and real. And then I hop into their mind and go along for the ride.

I try to be empathetic. Day to day as I live in the world, I often try to position myself in others? points of view, try to imagine how they are feeling, seeing a situation, reacting to someone else?s actions, how their personal history might be colouring their experience. Imagining the world from others? perspective in the real world helps me imagine it in the world of the story.

I try to imagine the character?s reaction to his environment: his physical surroundings (Would he notice the rug? Or the reminders up on the fridge? Would he hate or love the music being played?) Their reactions to their immediate environment helps me get to know them better.

Above all, I just keep writing. Only by hanging out with the characters on the page can they grow into themselves, become increasingly well-defined, vivid, opinionated. I have to spend time with them to see their true and unique colours.



SHAUN SMITH is a novelist and award-winning journalist in Toronto, Canada. His young-adult novel Snakes & Ladders was published in 2009 by the Dundurn Group. His book Magical Narcissism: Selected Writings on Books, Writers, Food, and Chefs was published by Tightrope Books in June 2013. shaunsmith.ca

Post new comment

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Advanced Search