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Experiencing Your Characters

As I get deeper into my novel, I need to know my characters in greater detail. What are their different worldviews, motivations, feelings, and experiences of the world? How can I learn to write from the perspectives of a diverse group of people, from princesses to priests to peasants?

Lately, I've been bringing experiences into my daily life that connect me with the people in my WIP. My characters live in a fantasy realm, in a distant location and time period. But I can share a few of their experiences to gain insight on how they might experience life.

I've gotten serious about my vegetable gardening this year, and I'm trying to do as much as possible without modern conveniences like power tools and chemical fertilizers and pesticides. I'm learning how it feels to watch the weather, to hope and pray, and to labor in the soil with my hands, like a medieval peasant or servant. Just trying to grow a few vegetables to supplement my diet gives me a taste of what it must be like to subsist mainly on what can be cultivated, year after year, in one's own plot of land, using simple tools.

To better understand my (yet to be introduced)character Bellynda the nomadic dancer, I am continuing my YouTube belly dance lessons. Just attempting the traditional movements gives me an idea of how physically strong Bellynda must be, how light and graceful she must move even when she isn't dancing, and how her posture must differ markedly from that of a sedentary princess taught to let her shoulders slope downward for a classic feminine aesthetic.

As a side note, in addition to traditional Middle Eastern and Indian music, I'm dancing to modern craziness like Rammstein and Gogol Bordello. My characters would never hear anything like dance metal or gypsy punk, but the music of these bands helps me get into a mood of European dark humor (Rammstein) and high-energy, light-hearted humor (Gogol Bordello), which gives the right flavor to my narrative.

To get to know my primary MC Rosemarie, I've been walking around a little bit without my glasses or contacts. I'm paying attention to how poor vision, in a world without optical aids, would affect a girl's whole life from interpersonal relations to the way she walks through a room. I can imagine how scary at first, yet freeing it would be to ride horseback and let the animal's eyes help guide her movement.

Of course, I can't do everything my characters do, so I have to rely somewhat on second-hand information, observation, and wild guesswork. I can't afford riding lessons, and I'm not going to learn how to play a harp anytime soon. But I can listen to harp music and watch it being played. And I've had a blast reading the books Sex with Kings and Sex with the Queen. (Ever heard of the exploding mistress? Or the arranged marriage of a cross-dressing, homosexual dandy to a strapping German fraulein? There's horror and hilarity, but not a trace of a happy ever after.)

Writer friends, how do you get to know your characters? Do you ever go out and try to experience some of the things they do? Or do you rely more upon second-hand research? Or do you just fill in the gaps with your imagination? Today, I'm off to search the internet for medieval blacksmithing practices. That's something I'm never going to attempt. I wouldn't mind watching a big, strong man give it a try, though...


  1. I mostly get to know my characters through interviews. I write out a set of questions then answer them as each of my main characters. It's effective and enlightening. Your way sounds like a lot more fun, though!

  2. I'm impressed by your dedication to knowing your characters. It sort of makes me think of method acting.

    Admittedly, I have never gone to such depths. Usually, I draw from similar-ish experiences I already have or I read and watch to get second-hand knowledge. Sometimes, I'll do things, but not as often.

  3. In a way, it's a dangerous method! I can totally fall into a procrastination trap by doing other stuff besides writing and pretending it's "research." Haha.

  4. I just wrote Chapter 4, in which we discover that Queen Hildegard loves apple blossoms. Which got me thinking... I do too! And so I had my family come over and help me plant three apple trees in my front yard. I'm hoping they'll bloom this spring, and the fragrance outside my windows will inspire me to write more.


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