The Character Puzzle

Every reader wants them. As authors and writers, we strive for them.

What are ‘they,‘ you ask?

Multidimensional characters. Well-developed characters do, think, and feel. But there should be more to them than that.

In literature, the only way to convey who your characters are is through their choices–especially when they are conflicted, and let’s face it, most of them are. When a personality wrangles through a situation, their choices must create the ripple effect that carries the plot through to its’ conclusion. It can be difficult to write those scenes that will show a reader who you want them to see.

The most powerful tools in a writers arsenal are imagination and a question, “What if…?”

What if your protagonist has abandonment issues? The traits that come along with that could manifest in a clingy nature or the complete opposite–a self-imposed isolation. What if your female is lead insecure? What if her love interest or best friend is possessive? How did that behavior come about? Why does your protagonist consider this acceptable?

I love it when a characters’ background plays into the tough decision of whether or not he/she should continue on in a particular relationship within the story.  It does not have to be super detailed (like the way I’d want it to be for myself, simply because that is the way I write). I just has to be interesting.

This part of the creative process is tough, especially when you are writing about people who are nothing like yourself with histories or backgrounds difficult to relate to.

In honor of the puzzle of characterization, I am posting two wonderful questionnaires I found online many years back as I was piecing together my leads for Between Octobers. The questions are designed to help you imagine, with greater detail, the type of choices and thought processes your characters use. Imagine how your protagonist and secondary characters–good or evil, man, woman, or child–would respond to the following questions and writing those tough scenes should get easier.

Character Questionnaire 1

**This questionnaire was found in Gotham Writers’ Workshop’s Writing Fiction**

You might start with questions that address the basics about a character:
• What is your character’s name? Does the character have a nickname?
• What is your character’s hair color? Eye color?
• What kind of distinguishing facial features does your character have?
• Does your character have a birthmark? Where is it? What about scars? How did he get them?
• Who are your character’s friends and family? Who does she surround herself with? Who are the people your character is closest to? Who does he wish he were closest to?
• Where was your character born? Where has she lived since then? Where does she call home?
• Where does your character go when he’s angry?
• What is her biggest fear? Who has she told this to? Who would she never tell this to? Why?
• Does she have a secret?
• What makes your character laugh out loud?
• When has your character been in love? Had a broken heart?
Then dig deeper by asking more unconventional questions:
• What is in your character’s refrigerator right now? On her bedroom floor? On her nightstand? In her garbage can?
• Look at your character’s feet. Describe what you see there. Does he wear dress shoes, gym shoes, or none at all? Is he in socks that are ratty and full of holes? Or is he wearing a pair of blue and gold slippers knitted by his grandmother?
• When your character thinks of her childhood kitchen, what smell does she associate with it? Sauerkraut? Oatmeal cookies? Paint? Why is that smell so resonant for her?
• Your character is doing intense spring cleaning. What is easy for her to throw out? What is difficult for her to part with? Why?
• It’s Saturday at noon. What is your character doing? Give details. If he’s eating breakfast, what exactly does he eat? If she’s stretching out in her backyard to sun, what kind of blanket or towel does she lie on?
• What is one strong memory that has stuck with your character from childhood? Why is it so powerful and lasting?
• Your character is getting ready for a night out. Where is she going? What does she wear? Who will she be with?

Character Questionnaire 2

**This questionnaire was invented by the noted French author Marcel Proust and found in Gotham Writers’ Workshop’s Writing Fiction**

These questions are frequently used in interviews, so you may want to pretend you’re interviewing your characters.

• What do you consider your greatest achievement?

• What is your idea of perfect happiness?

• What is your current state of mind?

• What is your favorite occupation?

• What is your most treasured possession?

• What or who is the greatest love of your life?

• What is your favorite journey?

• What is your most marked characteristic?

• When and where were you the happiest?

• What is it that you most dislike?

• What is your greatest fear?

• What is your greatest extravagance?

• Which living person do you most despise?

• What is your greatest regret?

• Which talent would you most like to have?

• Where would you like to live?

• What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

• What is the quality you most like in a man?

• What is the quality you most like in a woman?

• What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

• What is the trait you most deplore in others?

• What do you most value in your friends?

• Who is your favorite hero of fiction?

• Whose are your heroes in real life?

• Which living person do you most admire?

• What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

• On what occasions do you lie?

• Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

• If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

• What are your favorite names?

• How would you like to die?

• If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?

• What is your motto?

I printed these out and filled in the answers and whenever I got stuck on how one of my characters might respond to a given situation, I went back into my notes.

Hope they help you as much as they helped me.

Got any questions or advice? Leave them in the comment section!

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