Know Your Character Deeply in One Step: The Backdoor

characterthemetitle5So there’s this stubbornly bland character smack dab in the middle of your cast.

You need him, but you can’t get into his head.

Whether you can’t get a read on him, or he shifts personalities when you aren’t looking, he’s a major problem. Plot puppets aren’t allowed, not in your story.

So what do you do?

I’ve got a couple different methods, but the one I use most is equally effective when you have a story and when all you have is a bunch of ideas thrown into a pot. (Been there, done that.)

The Backdoor to Character

Most writers try to get to know a character through scrutiny, jotting down details like his favorite breakfast, and end up playing pin the tail on the donkey because there’s no point of reference to hold him together and give it all meaning.

It doesn’t give him a personality.

…Even the fears and desires you come up with feel hollow. (Been there, done that.)

Instead, we’re going to take a step back, go around, and sneak in another way. We’re going to look for the character’s theme.

So simple. So deceptively deep.

A character’s theme is an anchor. It marks how the character fits with the cast, the story, or the situation. And you don’t need to fill out a gigantic questionnaire before you start getting a feel for him.

You just have to pick a line of thought and start rummaging.

Stepping Back to Dive In

Consider these three questions:

If you have a story planned, what theme runs through it? If you have a world you want to create, what theme will shape it? If you have ideas for the character but can’t nail him down, what patterns do you see in those shifting traits?

At first glance, the most straightforward approach is using the story’s theme to decide the character’s theme. You want to have different characters exploring different aspects of the theme, more nuanced than standing on one side or the other.

What methods does your character use?Your character’s reasons for his stance, and his methods for carrying it out come into play, acting as doors further into the character. Now you can find values, fears, desires, strengths and flaws.

You’ll start to get a feel for the character’s attitude, too.

The second way is to look at the world you’re imagining. What’s the atmosphere? What shapes that atmosphere?

For instance, if you want a world of intrigue, you’re probably going to look at the theme “influence,” aka “carrot or stick.” I’ve found that in this case it’s easier to find the method than the motivation.

Get creative. Both sides of a theme will usually have an array of options that will reveal vastly different characters. (Use “carrot or stick” as practice. What do you come up with?)

When you ask why he’s influencing others generalized answers aren’t going to cut it. You need to deepen the character as you answer that question.

Cut throught the layers of fog.What’s the ultimate goal? What fears or desires fuel that goal? What’s the intermediate objective?

The backstory is probably going to be your strongest tool. Explore the life he has at the start of the story. You can also think of it in terms of, “What does he regret?” “What is his temptation?” “His passion?”

These questions, deepening your character, allow you to see how he fits in the story. Answers specific to his story, to the role you need him to play, make him an asset to your writing process.

The first two paths are great for outlining entire casts quickly.

The third way is to look at the character himself. You can look at his place in the story, look for patterns in the traits he has (even the ones that mutate), or the one thing that has never shifted.

Do you know how you want him to arc? That’s a theme.

How does he look at the world differently? What does he see when he passes a crisis on the street? What does he feel? That’s his worldview, and worldview can be a theme.

Like I said. Rummage.

Dig deeper. Ask why something is the way it is.

Ask why everything is the way it is.

Embrace Your Character’s Individual Theme

A theme isn’t a box for your character. It’s a way of planting his roots deep into the story so he can branch out and bloom within it.

You can use a combination of the three paths, rolling him around in motivation and method.

…Stretching him with arc, warming him up with backstory, soaking him in worldview.

…And dropping him in the middle of an atmosphere.

AND checking to make sure he doesn’t look like he’s been tarred and feathered with traits when you’re done. (It’s not pretty.)

Don’t be afraid to give him multiple themes, either.

Get to know him any way you can. Just do it at a deep level, where it matters.

No more superficial questions unless they give you deeper insight, okay?

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About MJ Bush

Developmental Editor.
Founder of Writingeekery with 10,000 monthly readers.
I help writers like you master the craft.


  1. MJ, glad to see your post. I have weeded several blog posts out myself, but always enjoy your “nuts and bolts” advice. As for your apologies for not being as readily posting as before…I understand. We all can over commit. I too have cut back on my own blogging while I push to finish my novel by early this summer – my co-writer and I are almost done with the rewrites and should have the proofread editing done by June. Phew! But its worth it and then I can return to more actively blogging again. Bringing “Shiloh Redemption” to life after eighteen months of hard work is job number one right now!
    God bless,

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  2. MJ,

    I don’t so much look forward to the regularity of your posts, it’s your wonderful insights into story and character. So go at your own pace, I just hope you’ll continue to share when you can.

    Happy 2015 – It’s gonna be a great year to be a writer!

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  3. Donna Marie Blauvelt says:


    I haven’t noticed the regularity of your post I just enjoy sponging them up with every appearance. I am only new to the writing game and really gain a lot from your posts so thank for taking the time and effort to share. I appreciate it greatly.

    I am my husbands carer so I know how crazy life can get particularly when we overload it and stress about it.
    Don’t sweat it , life is crazy and never long enough. 😉
    Take Care and Thanks

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  4. Hi M.J. and thank you for another valuable post.

    I have to echo everyone else here and say that how regular your posts are is not an issue for me. The content is always so worthwhile and gives me something to chew over in relation to my writing project, and that’s far more important than how often they appear. :)

    As for forgiveness, a lot of it for me is acknowledging any feelings and emotions I have around an issue, not hiding from them, but really allowing myself to feel them – without creating a drama about it which is not useful – and then thinking about anything I might have to do or can do or want to do to set things to rights. In cases where it’s just me without anyone else involved it’s usually a case of accepting that things did not go as planned. And that it’s ok. Missing the target is one way to discover what does and does not work for us and we can tweak things – or not – as we feel like it or accept that the amount we achieve is optimal for us, no matter what it looks like compared to anyone else.
    I hope 2015 is off to a good start for you and I wish you all the very best for the year ahead!

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  5. MJ, I learn so much from your insights! Thanks for this post. Character development is one of my weaker points, but I’ve gained a lot of ground since I first began writing. As for the frequency of your posts. No problem. I like the substance!

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  6. Varina Suellen Plonski says:

    Hi, MJ! Don’t beat yourself up about how often you post, not on my account anyway. To be honest, I don’t always read the posts–not because I don’t want to, just because sometimes my inbox is overwhelmed. So I wouldn’t know if they were few and far between or prompt on the tick of 12:01 am on the first of the month. I just reads ’em as I gets to ’em.

    As far as characterization, I have three methods I work from if I’m having a problem.
    My first method of character creation is derived from the fact that I play role-playing games, like D&D, GURPS and others. When I create a character for that, I decide on certain specifics for her. What their main motivation in life is, a quick backstory, and the like. Kind of a mental checklist that tells me how that person differs from ME. Then, the explanation goes “For all else, see Varina.” That’s where that person is LIKE me.
    Obviously, that gives me all the motivations and perspectives I need–and this is exactly what is missing from your scenario, so equally obviously this doesn’t help here. On to the next one!

    My second method is for when I’ve run into the problems you’ve mentioned above because I didn’t realize at the start how in-depth I’d need this character to be. Maybe I thought he’d be a walk-on when I started, or that she wouldn’t be as important as she later turned out to be. In that case, what I do is open a new Word doc and pull out every single paragraph that relates to that character, whether they’re in it or just referred to in it. I find that sometimes just reading that over and focusing on just that character may give me an insight that will make things click. A turn of phrase, a quirk, a throwaway line. Why, for instance, does my character rub his knuckles whenever he’s stressed? Is there something in his backstory that I didn’t know about? Is that the key?
    Then I go over it again with the thought in mind of what I now need that character to do. With that in mind, maybe now something in what I’ve written will click.

    My third method, the one that has surprised me most often, is to choose an actor who I would have play this character. That has been the most amazing thing for me, and has transformed my writing on more than one occasion. In two of my stories I have assigned the same actor to play two utterly different characters–the protagonist and the antagonist. This is because the actors I chose are so very versatile that they could play either one and be perfect for the part. Case in point: Christian Bale.
    In another case, I had a character who was to be if not a walk-on then just a background character, just a bodyguard for my antagonist. I like to know what my characters look like in my head rather than just a generic “this is a bodyguard” image, so I went hunting for the right look. I found a picture of Miguel Ferrer looking all dour and focused–and that character CHANGED. He is now not just a background throwaway, he is a good man trapped into working for the bad guy who has a hold on his family and friends. He befriends my protagonist, and becomes the key to her being able to win the day.
    My story is so much richer, so much BETTER for having chosen him as my image, all because the characters he plays in movies and TV influenced my perception of the character I was writing.
    And the cool thing about that also is that you don’t have to limit yourself to today’s actors. Bogart and Bacall and Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin are just as valid as Sigourney Weaver or Vin Diesel, Sean Bean or Danny Trejo or Chris Pratt or Hugo Weaving. Maybe it’s a specific role they played in one film. Like Jack Gleeson as Little Boy in Batman Begins vs. as Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones.

    Inspiration comes from the darnedest places, and you never know where it will take you!

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  7. Dear M.J.,I can never make my characters complex. I give them traits and the rest of it but find it hard to make them live on the page.

    When I write my novel, I’ll use some of your advice

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  8. Can anyone please give me an example of a character theme to make this clear to me?

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    • Anyone?

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      • I’ve been terribly sick, sorry for the wait.

        There are examples everywhere and most characters have multiple themes that come out so we don’t know which one they were built around, but for a simple example that’s been explored elsewhere, let’s go with Harry, Ron and Hermione as Soul, Body, and Mind respectively.

        Accordingly, each of them has a specific perspective that shapes their methods. One of the largest themes of the series is friendship, so it makes sense for the themes of the friends to interact. In fact, almost no character is created in a vacuum, and character themes often pair up or complement each other in some way.

        To get more specific, IF she started from “soul,” then his backstory was (in part) created to contribute to his sensitivity to emotion and morality.

        Take the time to examine some characters for yourself, searching for themes and guessing how they (might’ve) effected different parts of the character. If you can’t do that, you’re not primed to see how themes can ripple through your characters in different ways.

        What else do you see in Harry, Ron or Hermione?

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  9. Hello!

    Could you go into why a character should not be dripping with traits? I’m a little thrown by the statement, wondering now if my characters have too many traits.

    Thanks a bunch!

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    • Hi Jackie =)

      When I said a character shouldn’t be tarred and feathered with traits, I meant that there is a point where a writer has added too many traits to a character without determining how they interact and when one seemingly contradictory aspect takes priority over another. The effect becomes confusion instead of complexity, so my point was to keep rhyme and reason in HOW you add traits. Within the bounds of using traits wisely and creating a complex cohesive character, I love characters that are “dripping with traits” as you put it. =)

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