by Eldred Bird
When it comes to plotting out a new story, I’ll admit I’m a hardcore pantser, but when creating characters, not so much. I need to know who I’m writing about before I can tell their tale. My theory is the more real the character is to me, the more real I’ll be able to make them for the reader. Also, the better I get to know them, the more they will be able to tell me their story.
One way I get to know them at a deeper level is to sit down and have a conversation. Sounds crazy, right? Maybe, but it gives me the opportunity to hear their voice, see their expressions, and observe their body language. The more time I spend with them, the clearer the picture becomes, resulting in a more three-dimensional character.
Here are the 10 main questions I like to ask my characters and what I expect to learn from them.
This question seems like an obvious one, but it’s one of the most important. Where someone spent their formative years lays the foundation for everything to come. Was it urban or rural? What was the culture like? What accents are prevalent? What colloquialisms and traditions were popular there? Things like this can have an effect on behavior, speech patterns, and general likes and dislikes.
Whether a character chooses to stay close to home or get out of town can tell you a lot. Did they stick around out of fear of the unknown? Maybe they left town to escape the past. A character might go somewhere new to seek work or follow and old love, per chance to rekindle the romance. Some strike out on their own seeking adventure, others might be run out of town by the locals.
This is where I usually end up dragging the family skeletons out of the closet. Secrets can either build a strong bond between family members or tear them apart. Either way you’re bound to extract some dirt that ends up creating a good bit of drama that has a lasting emotional effect on the character.
This question gets me deeper into the character’s personality. How someone behaves in a social setting is very telling when it comes to what’s going on inside their head. Are they an introvert or an extravert? A leader or a follower? They may be the peacemaker in social situations…or the quick tempered one that gets tossed out of the bar for starting fights!
The people one chooses to surround themselves with can speak volumes about them. Do they forge long term friendships, or jump from one person to the next? They might gravitate toward people like themselves or seek out relationships that fill in qualities they feel they’re missing. One character might cling to someone stronger for protection, while another might see themselves as the protector. Of course, there are always the loners who never develop strong bonds with anyone. Think about your own friendships and compare them to your character’s.
No matter how nice or likeable someone is there will always be that one person who can’t stand them and will go out of their way to make their life miserable. It may be something in the character’s past that keys the reaction, or it could be as simple as jealousy because the character appears to have everything going for them.
Of course, there may also be legitimate reasons a character has enemies. Those reasons could be personal, professional, political, or legal, just to name a few. The character may also be unaware they have enemies, leading to a both a good plot twist and an opportunity for self-reflection for the character.
We all have fears, whether we want to admit it or not. Fear can drive a character to veer off on a different path rather than staying on what appears to be the better road. It may be a single fear or a whole constellation of them. Fear can get the character into trouble or help them avoid it.
What feels like an irrational fear to one person may feel totally justified to another. They can be external (heights, wild animals, etc.) or internal (fear of failure, or even success.) Either way, fear can create conflict within a character that must be delt with and overcome to succeed in their quest.
This question is all about the victories, great or small, that help to establish ego. Remember, this question is about what the character sees as their greatest accomplishment, not other characters, or the outside world. It’s all about self-image.
If the character can’t come up with an answer or downplays the subject it may show humility or a lack of ego, whereas someone who trumpets their victories from the highest mountain probably has an overdeveloped ego. Keep in mind that they may be talking big because they have a poor self-image and are over-compensating and hungry for attention and approval.
I’m not talking about the normal things like knitting sweaters or throwing a killer curveball, I mean the strange off-the-wall stuff that makes people stop in their tracks and pay attention. Details like this are what set characters apart and make them interesting. Having a special talent to call on may lead to a creative solution to a character’s current predicament. A good example of an unusual talent can be found below in my bio. Go ahead and scroll down. I’ll wait…
This is one of my favorite questions. It not only sets expectations for the character, but the author as well. Where the character sees themselves headed and the author intends to send them are often two entirely different places. This helps to set up roadblocks for the character to overcome to get to the final resolution of the story. I’ve found the farther these expectations are apart, the better the story end up being.
This is just a small sample of the questions you can ask to gain a deeper understanding of your character. If other questions pop into your head, ask them. You never know where they might lead.
Also keep in mind that this is an exercise for you, the author, to get to know who you’re writing about. Not all the information you dig up will make it into the final draft, nor should it. Just weave in the important details the reader needs to know and keep the rest in your head as you write. I think you’ll find that a better understanding of your character’s flaws and motivations will help you keep them real.
Do you talk to your characters? What questions do you ask? Let me know in the comments below!
Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing Karma, Catching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking Room, Treble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.
When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking, and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives).
Top photo credit from Depositphotos.
Bob with knives photo provided by the author.
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