Tools for Character Excavation

I once attended a panel where two authors started arguing about character. Author #1 couldn't write a word until she knew EVERYTHING about her characters. She filled out exhaustive character questionnaires, interviewed her characters as if she were a psychologist and they were her patients, and wrote novel-length backstories for every major character. There was no way she could write a story until she knew her characters inside and out.

Author #2 knew very little about her characters when she started writing and she didn’t expect to know anything until they were “ready to share.” At the time, she was writing book four in a series and she still didn’t know her main character’s middle name. She maintained that once she knew all the answers there was nothing left to discover and no point in writing their story.

I was utterly fascinated by both of these approaches. And fairly certain that neither one would work for me.

In theory, those lovely character questionnaires should be right up my alley. I love taking tests and filling out forms. Correction- I love taking tests and filling out forms when I know the answers. And I NEVER seem to know all the answers on those character worksheets, not even after I’ve finished a rough draft.

But my recent experience with fast drafting (you can read about it here and here) taught me that I need to have at least a rudimentary understanding of my characters before I put pen to paper (or fingers to keys).

I have yet to develop my own streamlined process for creating living, breathing characters that leap off the page, but I have found some tools that help me figure out what makes my characters tick.

The Enneagram system

According to the Enneagram system of personality types, human beings are driven by nine core needs. Each of the nine core needs corresponds to a personality type and each type has traits that will vary depending on whether a particular type is healthy, average, or unhealthy.

There are oodles of books, articles and even apps on the Enneagram so once you've figured out your character’s personality type you can delve into a wealth of information about that type, including what tends to trigger conflict and how a given type might respond to a situation depending on how well their core need is being met.

For example, if your character is a Type Eight, a Challenger, their core need is to be self-reliant and in control. If their inability to maintain total control reaches unhealthy levels they might become a ruthless outlaw or, even worse, a violent destroyer, and decide to destroy everything in their power instead of having to turn it over to someone else. The Enneagram system can help you figure out what your character's need is, but how that need manifests itself is totally up to you. 
Astrology guides

Do you know what sign your character is? You can give them a birth date and extrapolate from there or use descriptions of the twelve astrological signs as inspiration. For example, according to Athena Starwoman if my character’s sign were Virgo her life pursuit would be to do the right thing and her secret desire would be to love and be loved in return.

Once you’ve decided on a sign you can look up the characteristics, benefits and drawbacks associated with that particular sign as well as forecasts dealing with relationships, family, career, finances, health, etc. There's plenty of information available for interpretation, it's up to you to decide what works for your character.

Write a letter to your protagonist 

This tool was inspired by a revision technique I learned in a master class given by editor Cheryl Klein (this technique also appears in her book SECOND SIGHT). As part of the revision process Cheryl sometimes asks her authors to write a letter to a sympathetic friend in which they set out their vision for the story they’ve written. Who you write the letter to doesn’t matter as you’re really writing it to clarify your own thoughts and ideas.

When I wrote my letter I ended up addressing it to my protagonist, Jules. And as I wrote to her about what her story was about and why I was writing it, I made a number of realizations about Jules that I hadn’t known before, even though I’d already finished a rough draft of the story. There was something about the act of writing a letter that made everything come pouring out. I wasn’t worried about word choice, I was just trying to capture this nebulous thing I’d set out to create.

If you’re having trouble filling in the blanks and need to do a little character excavation, I hope one of these tools will help.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, my main character’s middle name is Hope.


These are fantastic ideas, Kristen! That last one is my favorite, and something I'm going to do today!

I definitely need to try these, Kristen! Thank you.

Again, wonderful techniques for fleshing out characters. Thank you so much Kristen for putting these out there.

Great ideas, Kristen. I'm going to write my letter to my character today (and tell her to stop whining)

Great post! Thanks for the ideas. I'll post this on my fiction writing wiki.

A character workshop I attended once did a whole segment on using Enneagrams, and I found it really helpful as a springboard into character motivations, reactions, and so forth. Helpful other points here too! Thanks for sharing.

How did I not know about this Enneagram system? I must learn more!

Enneagrams are fascinating, but they're like a Phd in psychology! You can spend TONS of writing time trying to understand the system. I do think it can help you flesh out a character, though, so long as you don't get sucked into the vortex, never to reappear.

Having said that, I like and have used all three of these techniques in the early stages of drafting. Each one helps in different ways. Love this post, Kristen.

Thanks, ladies! Talia, I have some books you can borrow :).

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