Characters: Getting to Know Your Hero

My son’s 7th grade English class just read The Outsiders. In the back of the book were some questions S.E. Hinton had written answers to. My son doesn’t remember the specific question, but in one answer Hinton said, basically, that she knew everything about her characters before she started writing the story.

Then yesterday, I went to an SCBWI conference and heard editors and agents talk about what really “grabs” them about a submission. They didn’t really apply the label of “Character” in their talks, but here’s what I “heard.”

An editor or agent has to fall in love with your work to take it on. Really fall in love. And to do that, there has to be something “there” for them to attach to. Something very, very specific. And I took that to be something specific about your main character.

How many times, when someone asks you about your book, have you said, “Well, it’s about a woman who…” or “It’s the story of this guy who…”

I decided yesterday that our stories can’t be about “a woman” or “this guy.” Our stories have to be about Ponyboy or Jane Eyre or Anne Shirley or Sam Spade. What happened in your brain when I put the names in that sentence. You knew just who I was talking about, you recognized each character. You responded as if I was talking about a real person. Because, when you read one of the names, you instantly–I’m betting–focused in on one or more specific, concrete details about that character. You also went right back to the feeling that person raised in you when you read about them on a page.

That’s our character goal, I think. To write someone who almost literally walks off the page and grabs the reader, who says, “Here! Right here! I’m ME!” And who shows you just who that ME is.

So, for today–how far do you have to go in knowing your characters before you start to write about them? Do you do character sheets? Do you draw pictures of them or cut out photos from magazines? Do you build a collage of all the things that make up that character? Or do you just write and write and see what grows off the page, what calls to you to shape and mold and highlight as your revise.

I cannot do character sheets. I’ve tried and tried. I need to start writing about a character to learn who he/she is. In many ways, character is defined by action and reation, so–writing down hair color, or age, or even the character’s secret, never feels real to me, unless I’m playing with it on the page of a story. Also, frankly, I get bored filling out this kind of details.

There are certain questions I do need answers to, though, before I can start telling my hero’s story:

  • What does my hero want? Here, I’m talking about a concrete, specific THING, not the big, global dream ideal
  • Why does he want this thing?
  • Why doesn’t my hero already have it?
  • What does my hero plan to do to get it?
  • Who will try to stop my hero? How will they try and, most important, why will they try?
  • What about my hero will work against his getting his own goal?

Do you see all the “whys” in that list? I think this is the layer of characterization that makes our characters unique, special enough to come close to any of those I listed above, to make a big splash with an agent, an editor, and a reader.

I don’t know all the whys when I start writing. As I said, I have some idea, or I couldn’t get started. But the more I write and the more I revise, the deeper I push myself for fuller, more detailed answers. People often ask, how do you know when your story is done. There are a hundred answers, but one has to be, “When you have the answers to all your whys and, together, those answers produce a strong, cohesive, captivating character.

Here are a few links I found to show you some more thoughts on characterization:

What about you? What have you tried and what’s worked best for you?


  1. Liz Jones says:

    Great post, Becky! I just linked on facebook!


  2. beckylevine says:

    Thanks, Liz. And thanks for stopping by!


  3. Sherrie says:

    Awesome entry, Becky! I’ve gone both routes, but like you, the characters become more real for me as I write about them and follow their journey. I’m going to take those questions you asked and apply them to a character I’m working with right now so see if I’ve answered them all. Thanks!


  4. Kim Justesen says:

    I think every writer approaches this task differently, and that’s a good thing. It would be dreadful if we all did the same stuff because then all the characters would come out sounding the same. I tell people about how the book “The Artist’s Way” (which millions of people love and swear by) actually caused me the worst case of writer’s block ever. I’m a firm believer in “Do what works for you and for your story,” because doing anything else is being dishonest to your writing.
    Great Post!


  5. beckylevine says:

    Thanks, Sherrie!

    I’d love to hear if you get any really exciting answers. 🙂


  6. beckylevine says:

    Kim, that’s exactly it. What I shoot for her is a discussion of those different ways–I love to get everybody’s take on this stuff. Thanks for stopping by.


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