If you’re a pantser, you probably start out writing your story with a vague idea of some characters—the protagonist, a secondary character or two, and maybe the antagonist. You know, sort of what happens in the story, or maybe you don’t. Maybe you just know that there are these people waiting at the edge of your mind to come to life through your fingertips.

But how do you bring them to life? How do you know who they are?

Some just start writing. They begin their story hoping that the characters will reveal themselves to you as you go. And to be honest, they probably will. And you’ll probably also need to throw away or completely rewrite your first chapter or two because you wrote them when you didn’t know who it was you were writing about.

As you wrote, the character’s backstories came to you and you may have just dumped that in there fully aware you’d have to remove it later. Or perhaps as the story and characters develop, they change so much that when you go back and read those first few chapters, you realize you weren’t writing about who the characters became. Those chapters need to be scrapped, rewritten.

But what if you could short-cut the process? What if you could get to know your characters without having to fill out tiresome character worksheets? What if you could get a start of figuring out who these people are either before you begin writing the book or just after you’ve done so—just so you have an idea where things are going?

Here’s a trick I used with a coaching client of mine who is a thorough pantser and hates knowing anything about her story before she begins writing. She can see a scene in her head that she knows will have to be about a quarter of the way into the story and from that there is the vague idea of a story. She wants to get started writing, but is doing that dumping thing where the backstory of the main characters just comes pouring out and it’s going to have to be cut.

I told her to write a short story. It doesn’t even need to be a complete story, but it’s nicer if it is. It doesn’t have to be long, a few thousand words, no more. But what it needs to be is that back story. It needs to be either the life of the protagonist or a major secondary character who is going to help shape the life of the protagonist along with the action and conflict of the story. Write the parts that you know you’re just going to have to cut later, but into a story and not a part of the book you will eventually write.

There are five advantages to this:

  1. You get to know this character’s back story before you have to write someone who is a product of that story.
  2. You see what sort of person they are, how they react to conflict, to bad things happening to them. And, with them, you experience these life-changing moments that shape who the person is at the start of your story.
  3. You can hear their voice. Hearing someone’s voice in your head is vital to being able to write them. An example of this is a secondary character written by my coaching client. She thought this person was from Philadelphia, but once the woman started talking, it was very clear she was from the South. My client had had a vague idea who the character was and where they were from, and only through writing the character’s dialogue, through hearing her voice, did my client realize she’d been wrong and needed to rework in her head this character’s life before she shows up in the book.
  4. You may be able to snitch pieces of dialogue, description, or even the main event in your short story to use in your book when the character is reminiscing about what made them the way they are or what they are fighting against.
  5. You have a piece of work you can share with your readers to get them excited about your upcoming book, or to use as a reader magnet to get people to sign up for your newsletter. It’s always good to have a few short stories in your back pocket.

It shouldn’t take you long to write this short story—perhaps a few hours, maybe as long as a day or two, depending on how much time you have to devote to it and how long it turns out to be. But then you will have a character in mind. You will have a person who has lived through something. And you may have their relationship with others in the book pieced out—where they met, what happened when they did, how they react to each other and either get along or don’t.

Writing a short story about your main and/or secondary characters is a cheat to help you get to know those people and will probably make it easier to start writing the actual you story you’re meaning to tell.