Knowing your characters inside, rather than out

Writers are often told they should know their characters intimately before they start writing.

Physical characteristics such as height, weight, colour of hair, shape of chin, right down to the scar on her left knee that the character got when she was six, and spiked herself on the new bicycle she got for Christmas.  Identifying habits, such as the nervous tic she gets when speaking in front of audiences, the way she likes to eat ice-cream on cold days, and how she loves to dance in the rain; that she likes wearing pink lipstick with red shoes.  Emotional make-up, like how her father leaving her mother when she (our protagonist) was ten years old meant that she was brought up in a household that hated men.

This, writers are told, makes for a well-rounded, three-dimensional character.

I have a confession to make.

I don’t know what most of my characters look like.  I definitely don’t know at the start of the book, and sometimes I don’t know much more by the end.

Jens, from my latest work-in-progress, is small and dark, shorter by a head than his older sister.

That’s about it as far as physical characteristics go, and I’m close to the end of the book.  I think he has grey eyes, but I don’t specifically mention it anywhere, and if the reader wants to give him blue eyes—or green eyes, or brown eyes—they can.

Gunnar, the other point-of-view character, is tall, blonde and muscled, around the same age and build as Jens’ father.  He may or may not have long hair. I alternate on thinking he does.

That doesn’t mean that by the end of the book I don’t know my characters well.  I do.  I know exactly how they’ll react in any given situation.

I know that Jens was accidentally locked in a safe when he was five years old, and nowadays hates to be in enclosed spaces. I know that he’ll do what he thinks is right, even when he agrees to follow orders and is told to do something else.

I know that while Gunnar doesn’t have time for pampered people who try to run his expeditions for him, and that he’ll refuse to work again with someone who endangers any expedition he is in charge of.

Put either of them in a room  or a situation and I know exactly what they will do or say.

But I still couldn’t give you a full description of either of them.

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