July 14, 2017

How I Get to Know My Characters

By Jill Eileen Smith

Some writers are great at plotting a story. Me? Not so much. At least not when I first began to write. My sons on the other hand – they understood plot. I remember the day I was trying to write a novella, crying over the computer because I couldn’t figure out how to put it all together. My oldest said, “Come on, Mom. I’ll show you.” And he used the movie, “You’ve Got Mail” to help me. For this visual girl, watching the structure was far more help than reading a how-to book about story.

Plotting isn’t quite as daunting now, but over time I realized that I prefer to get to know my characters first. How can I tell what they are going to do in the story, if I don’t know them?

Starting a story with character development has become my favorite part of the craft. I love making what my friend Deborah Raney dubbed an “Idea Board”. I used to make them out of poster board and pictures of people from catalogs. But when I’m writing biblical fiction set in the Middle East with characters that aren’t my nationality, I’ve found the Internet a better place to search for Jewish, Arab, Persian, Egyptian, or African characters.

I don’t use poster board any longer, but I do copy and paste photos of models or actors from those countries and “cast” them onto a blank page or into Scrivener and assign them various roles. In Redeeming Grace, my main character Ruth was cast first, then Boaz and Naomi and lastly the side characters. I’ve found Scrivener a great place to write out their characteristics, their part in the story, and anything else that I initially imagine.

Those initial traits will change as I study the biblical and historical setting and culture, but the Idea Board gives me a visual to work from. As the movie, “You’ve Got Mail” gave me the visual for a romance plot, the pictures and prompts in Scrivener help me to look long at the photos and imagine. What were they thinking when this happened? How did they feel? Why did they make that choice?

As I imagine, I create paragraph summaries to interweave the plot and characters. Though I would identify myself as a partial seat-of-the-pants writer, I have to have an outline to work from. So first characters and the Idea Board, then the paragraph summary of the plot, which all comes after I’ve done at least some initial study of my subject. Then the first draft – my least favorite part begins. But this is where I solidify the “getting-to-know-you” phase with my characters. And in my experience the motives and emotions of the characters will only touch the reader if I do the hard work of trying to understand those characters, and perhaps understand myself a little bit better in the process.
Jill Eileen Smith is the author of Desert Princess (ebook short) #1 Loves of King Solomon series, the Wives of the Patriarchs series, the upcoming Daughters of the Promised Land series, and the bestselling author of the Wives of King David series. When she isn't writing, she can often be found reading, biking, traveling, spending time with friends, or snugging her feline writing buddy Tiger. She especially enjoys spending time with her family.  To learn more about Jill or for more information about her books, visit her website at You can also contact Jill at She loves hearing from her readers.

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