Wednesday, April 17, 2013

How to Discover Your Characters by Letting Them Journal

After reading an interesting post on Carrie Lewis's blog, I asked her the following question: 

"You recommend keeping a character journal to get to know your characters better before writing the story. How does a writer go about this?'" - Sandy

Carrie: There are lots of ways to get to know your characters. Interviews. Family histories. Questionnaires.
One of the potentially most fun and most revealing, but also the most difficult, is journaling.

With journaling, your character keeps a personal journal. A diary, if you will. They talk about deep, dark secrets; dreams they’ve never shared with anyone else; triumphs and tragedies.

Journaling from the character’s point of view is a great way to get into the character’s mind and personality and to learn about a character from the inside out.

But there are a couple of caveats.

First and foremost, don’t ask questions. You want to write as the character so don’t allow any author intrusion. Step back and let the character speak for him- or herself.

Second, don’t edit. Take a minute or two (or three or four if necessary) to get into the character’s frame of mind, then just start writing.

What your character journals about will be different from day to day and character to character, but if you need something to get started, consider these topics.

·         Childhood
·         Young adulthood
·         Fondest dreams of the future
·         Biggest pet peeve
·         Biggest fears

Still not sure where to start?

Here is an excerpt from my current lead character.

The worst thing that could have happened just happened. The perfect layout. A nice old lady who treats me like a son. A big house and a great neighborhood. Access to anything I want and honest pay for a cushy job to boot. What more could a guy want?
So here comes this guy breaking into the house and here I come, protecting my territory. Next thing I know, I’m a hero. Didn’t plan for that. Don’t necessarily want that. It might have its advantages in other situations, but right now, it’s the last thing I need. A little bit of press and there goes my hiding place.

I didn’t actively solicit this character’s comments, but I had written myself into what looked like a corner. The character was able to not only remind me who he was and why he was in the story in the first place; he also suggested an aspect of the storyline I hadn’t previously considered.

That’s what you want with a character journal. The interaction between you as the author and the character as the one who is actually experiencing the story.

Don’t worry about getting it right the first time. It takes time and practice to turn off your author’s voice and personal voice well enough to hear nothing but your character’s voice.  This is an activity that improves with practice, so don’t give up too soon.

And don’t worry if a character seems reluctant to journalize. Some will step forward and take over eagerly. Getting others to speak will be like pulling teeth. Be patient. Learn to roll with the punches and follow the character’s lead.

And most of all, feel free to step back and let them rant!

You won’t be sorry.

For over thirty years, Carrie's writing took a backseat to full-time work outside the home and to her small business painting portraits of horses and other animals from across the country.

In 2008, she rediscovered writing and, in late 2009, became a full-time artist, which opened up time each day to pursue writing.

Her favorite genres are mystery, suspense, and political thriller, with manuscripts in the works in each of those categories. She also is an active crit partner for other authors, both published and unpublished.
Carrie’s writing blog can be found at and includes quarterly Writing Well Story Clinics. Her art website and blog is

Have you ever tried the method of journaling to discover your characters or write your way out of a corner? Do you have another way you've found helpful to get to know your people? Please share your method with us.


  1. Thank you for allowing me to guest post this morning!

    1. Thank you, Carrie. I appreciate your sharing your way of understanding your characters--something so essential to creating a good story.

  2. Great post on journaling, Carrie. I have only tried this after completing my book, usually for character blog posts. Most times my books evolve from an idea or story question, and the characters evolve from that...except with Renner. He was Trey's partner in Journey's End, and I knew as soon as he hit the page that he'd star in his own book.

    Thanks for sharing your method, Carrie. I shall try this. :-)

    1. Dora,

      You're welcome.

      My stories evolve from a variety of sources. Sometimes it's an event, sometimes, an overarching idea. No two are the same.

      No two characters are the same, either. Some of them will beg you to let them keep a personal journal. Some won't want to touch it with a ten-foot pole!

      You mentioned character blog posts. I should mention that after you have a published novel or two, one way to entertain readers online is by posting "Special Features" on your blog. Similar to the special features on movie DVDs, you can post all sorts of back ground material, deleted scenes, and, yes, you can let your characters speak for themselves. Letting your character journal during the writing process is a great way to build a collection of potential blog posts later on!

      Thanks for the reminder and thanks for reading!

  3. Great advice! I'm going to give it a whirl. :)

    1. Raquel,

      Thank you.

      Have fun with the journaling and let us know how it turns out for you.

  4. Letting the characters journal is a totally new concept to me, and I'm excited to try this!

    Thanks so much - I just discovered your site today and I joined your list and bookmarked it. I look forward to learning more - thanks!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Susan. Glad you enjoyed this post. Be sure to let us know how it works for you. :-)


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