How well do you know your characters?
I try to ask myself this question fairly often. Knowing your characters well is the key to writing them well, at least in my opinion. So what happens when you’re not sure how well you know a character?
Personally I like to use what I call the “Big Empty Room Test.”
The rules of the test are simple. Take a character you know, or are trying to figure out and have them suddenly wake up in a big empty room. How big is up to you, but I personally put them in something the size of an amphitheater; huge and empty. Then you add some details to the room. Is the air stale? Are there doors? Are things dusty? Just some setting basics. When you’ve got that all set, the test begins. The character wakes up. What happens?
Do they reach for a weapon?
Do they panic?
Do they draw in a sharp breath and curse the day they scrambled from their mother’s loins?
The good thing about this test is that there are no right or wrong answers. Most of us only really become ourselves when there’s no one else around, so we can see our characters in a similar light, with the added bonus of seeing them react to something truly strange, like waking up somewhere strange.
Those of you familiar with my blog will know my character Barn. Barn is a man of great strength and skill but, although he’s occasionally prone to ill temper, he is never prone to rash action. I picture the Big Empty Room Test with Barn as going something like this:
* * *
Barn woke nearly immediately after the transition. The cool forest air he’d fallen asleep under had faded, replaced by a stale still weight. That change alone may have been enough to wake him, but it wasn’t the only change. The soft grass tickling his back and sides was gone, replace with course woven canvas and the odd pressures of a massive cot.
His eyelids flicked open, and wary eyes stared upward in the dim light of the room. The ceiling was vast. The great wooden beams dusty and showing the strain of great use. Already Barn could tell he was alone. Another person in this room would echo. Any movement, even breathing would rebound to Barn’s sensitive ears.
Barn rolled to his feet in a single fluid motion, turning to look at the massive cot he’d been lying on. It looked regimental. Military issue maybe, but huge. Massive enough for a man Barn’s size and woven with seven layers of heavy canvas fabric. Barn studied it carefully, ignoring the massive double doors on each end of the rectangular room. They could wait. A bed would have meant someone had been expected. The cot, on the other hand, meant He had been expected.
The room was stale and dust covered, but the cot wasn’t. That meant it was new. A recent addition to the massive theater. And wherever there was a theater there was a show. And Barn was rather annoyed by the idea that he might be it.
* * *
The Big Empty Room Test isn’t meant to give you the solid background of a character. No names or dates of places, but it does give you insight. An idea of who they are. Once you get the hang of that the rest is just details.