Team Up With Your Characters

Terri Osburn 200x300~ By Terri Osburn

Most of the time, when a person goes to the doctor, she’s going because there’s a problem of some kind. In order to solve that problem, the doctor needs to ask a lot of questions, listen intently to the answers, and gain the patient’s trust that she knows how to solve said problem.

When it comes to writing, think of yourself as the doctor, and your character as the patient.

That character stepped into your brain because he or she has a problem. For romance novelists, the problem often has to do with his or her love life, but not always. Maybe she’s competing for a promotion with some jerk in the office. (Who is quite possibly her soul mate, and she doesn’t know it yet.) Or he’s a bachelor who is suddenly the guardian of his niece and nephew and is completely out of his element. (Enter the sweet, single neighbor who has a way with the new wards.)

Whatever it is, this character is entrusting you to fix the problem. In order to do so, you have to follow the same steps as the doctor.


Ask your characters lots of questions. I have detailed character sheets that ask everything from where the character was born to her favorite color and her extracurricular activities in high school. Obviously, not all of the answers will factor into the story, but in many cases, the question you never would have thought important is the one that leads to plot elements you might not have found otherwise.

And if you don’t like the idea of detailed anything, you can still ask your characters lots of questions as you pants your way through the story. Settle your fingers on the keyboard, close your eyes, and fire away. Sounds woo-woo, but it works.


Once the questions start flowing, it’s time to listen. This imaginary stranger who kicked you in the temple demanding a story knows that story way better than you do. It’s important to listen to what they’re telling you. Not only at first, but all the way through. You may have the notion that the black moment is sparked by the hero’s issue throwing up major roadblocks, but when you get there, you might find the real problem is your heroine’s insecurities that blow the whole love story to smithereens.

The benefit of listening is twofold. On one hand, your characters will let you know when you’re taking the story in the wrong direction. Hopefully, before you’ve gotten too far off the rails. On the other hand, if you’re stuck and have no idea where in the world to go next, the characters will give you the answer. You just have to listen.


The trust element goes both ways. The more you listen to the characters, the more they’ll speak to you. Trying to write a story with the characters fighting you all the way is like trying to pull a Mack truck up a hill with dental floss. (This happened while writing my latest release. I thought I’d never get that book off the ground.) Earn their trust by listening to everything they tell you with an open mind.

But don’t forget to trust your characters as well. I don’t know how many times I’ve been typing along and words appeared on the screen that I didn’t plan. I don’t know where they came from or what possessed my fingers to type them. But so often those words are the magic in the story. When I trust the characters to tell the story, they do. Lots of Aha! moments ensue, and I remember why I took up this crazy endeavor in the first place.

So remember, as writers, we need to ask, listen to, and trust our characters. Writing is tough on a the best of days, but you don’t have to go it alone. Team up with your characters and tell the story together.  Embrace the woo-woo, and let the magic happen.

Although born in the Ohio Valley, Terri Osburn found her true home between the covers of her favorite books. Classics like The Wizard of Oz and Little Women filled her childhood, and the genre of romance beckoned during her teen years. In 2007, she decided to put pen to paper and write her own. Just five years later, she was named a 2012 finalist for the Romance Writers of America® Golden Heart® Award. The author of the Anchor Island contemporary romance series, you can learn more about this author and her work by visiting her website at

16 thoughts on “Team Up With Your Characters”

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  2. Terri, this is all wise wise wise advice!! I’ve gotten some of the best information from my characters when I’ve stopped to “chat” with them rather then trying to force a trait or problem or situation on them. Listening to what they have to say is key to getting under their skin and really getting to know them.

    Thanks for the reminders and advice!

  3. Terri, this is awesome. I’ve been struggling a bit with my characters, so I did a bit of a character sketch. It helps. I’m one of those who makes notes as I go and more than once I’ve been hit by the ‘sister on page 100’! My writer brain likes to play the shell game.

    I’m going to try for a more in depth pre-characterization. I’m all for making this writing thing a little easier. 🙂

  4. Great article, Terri. I like doing a character sketch before writing. The characters evolve from that foundation as I’m writing. Your writing tips are always helpful!

  5. LOVE the woo-woo, especially when it comes to wooing. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.) Thank you, Terri, for the fabulous analogy of the doctor’s office. I love the idea of characters popping into my head with problems. I’ve never thought of it that way, but that’s exactly what they do. Unfortunately for them, unlike a doctor, we don’t REALLY want to help them, at least not right away. We want to make their problems worse and put them through hell first, THEN help them. Maybe we’re more like Dr. Moreau? Or Laurence Olivier doing dental work in MARATHON MAN?
    I’ve gone off the deep end; back to my WIP. Thank you for the great post!

    1. Colette, I don’t know about you, but quite often when I’ve gone to a doc for something, they make it worse long before it ever gets better. 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Love this, Terri! A great example of characterization brought to the human/writer level. I’m not one for long sheets, but I do write down everything I know about the character, then ask questions. I also wait to “hear” them speak or visualize them in action…then the words flow.

    I love the magic words that fly off my fingertips onto the page. Those are the words that are never edited and I thank my subconscious for fighting through to the front :0

    Wonderful post!

    1. It’s amazing what they’ll tell us when we take the time to listen, Jean. My characters jabber all the time, though it’s almost always about the internal conflict stuff. The external story is always harder for me to find. Thanks for stopping by.

  7. This is brilliant, Terri! LOVE how you compared characters to a trip to the doctor’s – both trying to solve their problem. And your wisdom on learning to know and trust your characters is perfect. I knew all this, but have never seen it or been able to put it words before. And I LOVE that your characters, too, type words on the screen that you did not write. I’m passing this blog on! Write On, Girl!!!

    1. Thank you, Heather! I am so rarely called brilliant that I’m going to relish this moment. *pauses to relish* I love those unexpected revelations. They’re just one of the things that make this job so fun.

  8. Yes. Woo-woo is a technical term. 🙂 I do the questions up front because while writing a previous WIP (a long time ago) I was 100 pages in before the heroine informed me she had a sister. A sister who played a big role in the book. Would have been nice to know that on page one.

  9. *LOL* Is “woo-woo” a technical medical/writer term? *LOL*

    I’m in the “asking questions as we go” camp because the characters can be very moody about answering anything, “What does that matter right now? I have a PROBLEM. FIX the problem; don’t ask me about my childhood.” So we get some basics out of the way; the things they get real stubborn about I mark for later because clearly it’s going to be an issue later; and then like Jessica, in revision, try to make sure things sound consistent in characterization.

  10. Jessica Ruddick

    I’ve tried character sheets, but I get bored with them after the first few questions. I usually just try to learn who my characters are as I write. Because this is my method, in revision, I have to pay special attention to characterization to make sure they’re consistent.

    My characters also sometimes speak on their own when I’m writing. For instance, in my WIP I didn’t realize my main character was claustrophobic until she nearly started hyperventilating in a tight space. Who knew? Not me says the author. 🙂

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