Welcome to Part 3 of my How-To Series for writers! So far, we’ve covered the work space, and the importance of reading to write. This week we’re tackling the trauma of “how-to” create fantastically well-developed characters.
Let’s Dive right in:
Part 3: Character Development
The one thing that can make or break a story is how well-developed the characters are.
A few examples: If Christian Grey was simply a sadistic control freak, then would any woman reading that book have wanted Ana to stay with him? What would the Fixed Trilogy be without the complex and mysterious Hudson Pierce? (If you don’t read trashy romance) What would the Harry Potter books be without that cast of understandable, relatable, group of young wizards?
My point is flat characters make for a flat story. And who wants to read one of those? I know that when I am reading a book with a bunch of characters that serve no more purpose than to prop up the storyline, I can’t keep reading it. No matter how curious I am about where the plot may go, I just don’t care about the characters enough to invest my time in them.
That is this author’s nightmare because I write with the intention of being read.
As I read and reread the tenth or twelfth draft of my manuscript, I am constantly looking for ways to tighten up my plot, to keep the reader engaged. I am shooting for “Unputdownable.” I want no place where the reader of my sci-fi trilogy will feel comfortable in setting aside my book. But that is not an easy thing to do. In fact, it may one of the hardest things for me since I have a tendency to over-write. But I’m getting better at it!
Overall, it is much easier to create that engaging, never-let-go tension when you have characters that readers can relate to. And if not relate, then to at least understand in some measure.
So, how can we do that?
The Power Of a Question
Sometimes creating a character that reads like a real person comes easily, but most of the time it doesn’t.
I’m sure there are thousands of ways that other writers have developed to get their character creating mode on, but here is mine: I ask questions.
Lots and lots of questions. Far more questions than is truly necessary. Because this is the easiest, fastest way for me to understand who I am dealing with on the page and if I understand my characters personality, chances are my readers will too. But still, as writers, we should assume nothing.
You see, I can plot and plan all I like, but if my characters are not responding from the page, if they aren’t speaking to me, making my process of getting from one plot-point to the next somewhat difficult, then I am not doing my job at writing a believable person.
I love a strong personality. In real people and paper ones. I love characters that wrestle with things. Maybe they have a past they aren’t proud of. Maybe he or she was orphaned at a young age and suffers abandonment issues. Maybe he or she was sheltered growing up and are suddenly stepping into their adult life swathed in naivete that will land them in all sorts of trouble. You know, good stuff like that.
Okay, that’s enough elaborating. Below is a list of my very own questions that I use to develop a character in my mind before they hit the page. There are also a few links in there that you might want to take a look at:
Character Questionnaires 1&2:
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?
- What kind of distinguishing facial features does your character have?
- Does your character have a birthmark?
Where is it?
What about scars?
How did she 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 she wish she 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 she’s angry?
- What is her biggest fear?
Who has she told this to?
Who would she never tell this to?
- 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 she wear dress shoes, gym shoes, or none at all?
Is she in socks that are ratty and full of holes?
Or is she wearing a pair of blue and gold slippers knitted by her 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?
- It’s Saturday at noon. What is your character doing?
If she’s eating breakfast, what exactly does she 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. 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?
If you feel like you need more guidance in this area, you can always check out Writers Digest and The Writers Workshop
As always, keep reading and don’t forget to let your favorite authors know what you think about their work by leaving a review on Amazon or Goodreads!