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Get to Know Your Characters

on March 22nd, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on March 22, 2013

I’ve posted quite a few articles about characters, their goals and motivations. And we’ve looked at antagonists and protagonists, seen how they relate to one another and to plot. But I’d like to prime the idea pump with some questions geared toward making you think about your characters in ways you haven’t before.

You’ve probably read lists that help with character development, lists that catalog personality traits and careers and physical characteristics. I want to add to your options by simply asking questions, questions that should help uncover your characters’ hidden history and qualities.

This list goes less to the outer characteristics of a character and instead looks at him on the inside. So you won’t find questions about what he wears or where he shops or about the length of his hair. But you will find questions that’ll help you understand why he responds (or should respond) as he does.

Use the questions—and your answers—as a base for creating story situations and other characters that bring out the more colorful or emotional sides of your main characters.

If you want one character to get under the skin of another, to push his buttons again and again until that second character simply must explode in reaction, then you have to know that character even better than the first character does. You have to design the elements that set a character up to have his buttons pushed. You have to develop and use triggers that will make characters react to stimuli specifically designed to do just that.

Don’t worry if you’ve never asked yourself these kinds of questions before—this is just one more option to get at character motivation and personality and help drive story events. This knowledge can also help you design both action and reaction. Coming up with such questions on your own can be difficult when you’re already deep into a character’s story.

But now you’ve got a list of questions to begin with. These should, in turn, bring other questions to mind. Consider this list to be part of your preparations when you begin a new story.

To devise questions that can be used for any character, consider characters in general and not a specific one. When you’re ready to ask and answer the questions, that’s when you dig out information peculiar to a specific character. Once you’ve got a new story in mind, begin the interrogation and see who your characters are. Or discover what your characters should be in order to fulfill the story you see unfolding for them.

The Questions

What does your character want? Yes, it’s a basic question, but do you know the answer? And do you know why he wants what he wants? And do you know how far he’ll go to get what he wants?

Make sure you know a character beyond simple words such as he wants to make a name for himself.  That’s a good start, but it’s only a start.

How did that want develop? Where did it come from? How deeply is it embedded? Can it be satisfied by more than one object or person? Does he, the character, want it more at certain times of the day or year? When he’s drunk or falling off to sleep or starting his day? When he sees a woman who reminds him of the one who betrayed him or the man who stole his company?

Does he have competing desires? Does he ally himself with others who have like desires? Does he care whether or not his desires are met? Will he help others with their desires?

Are his wants easily satisfied or never satisfied? What satisfies those wants? Does he accept substitutions or the satisfaction of a lesser want when what he really wants is out of his reach? Isn’t socially acceptable? Embarrasses him?

What triggers your character’s want? Do different triggers produce different levels of response? How does he hold that want in check so it doesn’t rule his life? Does he require medication? Hypnosis? Therapy? Adherence to religious rituals? Can he even restrain himself from acting out, from pursuing what he wants?

What do his wants lead to? Do they force him into unethical or illegal behavior? Maybe he pushes himself until he has a heart attack. Maybe he drinks, not caring that he gets behind the wheel drunk or treats others callously. Maybe he gets into fights or sleeps with other men’s wives.

Maybe he volunteers for dangerous duty. Or maybe he runs from danger. Maybe he’s so mortified by his desires that when someone else even hints at them, he’s compelled to silence them. Whether that means killing them or buying out their company or having them transferred or stirring up other trouble to occupy them will depend on the genre and the type of story you’re writing.

What kind of man is he when he regrets his bad behavior? What kind of man is he when he forgets what makes him act irrationally and he behaves as he would have had something not interfered and made him a different sort of man?

~  Which other characters know how to trigger negative (or positive) reactions in your main characters? What are their goals? Why do they use what they know about other characters for their own ends? What are those ends?

~  How does a character’s choice of career or hobbies or locale reveal his past?

~  What are your character’s coping mechanisms? Work? Sex? Breaking the law? Driving dangerously? Playing the stock market? Internet hacking? Flirting with inappropriate people? Outwitting colleagues? Getting involved with politics?

~  What aspirations does a character have? Where’d they come from? Does he understand those aspirations and why he has them and how they influence his choices? That is, is he self-aware? Whether he is or he isn’t, how does that affect his behavior?

What makes a character laugh or cry or go speechless with wonder? What does a character do to discover beauty in her world or to hide ugliness that haunts her or that she fears?

~  What does a character fear? In what ways does that fear affect her daily activities? Where did the fear originate? Does the character know or care where it came from? How do other characters manipulate that fear? How can you manipulate it?

Did fears influence a particular job choice or spouse choice, the choice to have children or move across the country? Does fear keep a character close to home or does it make him move far away?

Do fears make your character overcompensate and learn ways to defeat even imagined enemies? How does a character cope with fears? Are they exposed to light and examined or are they hidden?

~  What does your character value? Good friends? A job well done? Being liked? being appreciated? being left alone?

~  What makes a character happy? What satisfies him? What enrages him? What depresses him?

Who is your character when she’s alone in her bathroom or alone in her head? What does she think or worry about?  What does she reveal to no one? What does she share with everyone?

What does a character avoid? Why does she avoid it? When she can’t avoid people or situations or emotions, how does she handle those people, situations, or emotions? What’s her go-to response when events don’t go her way? What’s the next response when she can’t fix what’s happening? And what’s the next response after that, when she still can’t change what’s happening?

~  Is your character predictable? In what ways? Or if not, why not?

~  How does your character react to failure? To success? To the unexpected? To death? To his mother’s unexpected presence in his home or office or life?

~  What does your character hate? Love? Find humorous? Find gross?

~  When is your character tender? How does he react to his feelings of tenderness? How does he respond to the tenderness of others?

~  Does your character trust? Under what conditions? What does he do when trust is betrayed?

~  What legacy does a character want to leave? Or is he so caught up in the now that there’s no thought of legacy? If he’s thinking in terms of legacy, how does that affect his actions and plans? If he lives only for the moment, what does that mean in terms of goals and gratification and planning?

Will your character try anything or try nothing? Why? What made him that way? What could change his mind?

~  Is a character honorable? Does he consider himself a success or a failure? What has influenced him more, his parents or teachers? A mentor or an uncle who used to visit once a year?

~  What hurts your characters? Think not only of the physical but the mental and the emotional. Who can a character be hurt by? Which other characters is a character indifferent to?

What does a character surround himself with in terms of other people and their strengths and weaknesses? Does he want strong allies or weak accomplices? Does he look for himself in others or does he search out those wholly different from himself? Does he choose friends for what they can do for him or because he can take advantage of them or because he simply enjoys being with them? Who does he seek out and why?

What kinds of other characters might a character always let get close? Children? The elderly? Those with particular physical or mental or emotional challenges? What kinds of characters might he never let get close?

~  What are your characters’ weaknesses? Strengths? Who takes advantages of those strengths and weaknesses? How does your character react when he’s taken advantage of? Does his response depend on who’s taking advantage?

~  How does a character treat family members? Friends? Coworkers? Peers? Authority figures? Enemies?

~  Does a character like his friends because they make him a better man or because they let him be who he is without apology? Is he capable of being a friend? Why or why not?

~  Do a character’s job and career paths reflect his interests or his parents’ directives?

~  Does a character love in return or does he take advantage of those who love him? Does he do both at the same time? Is he capable of love?

Does he speak love or does he show love by his actions, either the practical or the extravagant?

~  At the beginning of your story, is the character living out his dream or just getting by? Where does he stand in the middle of the story? At the conclusion?

~  Is a character loyal? Always or only conditionally? Does he require loyalty in his friends?

~  What would never move your character? If he has no response to an event or news report, should you even consider that event for your story? Maybe his lack of reaction is key to something vital. But if it isn’t, if he’s truly indifferent, perhaps a different goad is necessary to stir a response from him.

~  Does your character like order or chaos? Does he crave order because he lives in chaos? Or might he live a structured life because that pleases his wife, boss, or best friend and yet yearn for a come-as-it-may life?

~  If a character did something out of character, what would it be? And what would his reaction be? Satisfaction? Remorse? A move toward immediate restitution? Escape?

~  Does your character trust? Everyone? No one? Only friends of long standing? Is he too trusting?

~  Has your character’s life always been so troubled that she’s developed a tough skin and an uncaring attitude—or maybe a highly caring attitude to contrast what she’s experienced all her life? Or has she truly been blessed and content all her life until you drop something horrendous on her head, something she has no coping mechanisms to deal with?

~  What does your character lack in terms of emotions or skills or desires? How does this lack affect her life? Her emotional stability? Her dreams? Her relationships?

~  Does your character envy what she lacks, without doing anything to acquire what is lacked, or does envy prod her to precipitous actions or perhaps to unswerving effort?

~  How far would a character go to achieve victory? What would compel him to quit before he reached his goals?

~  Is your character a thinker, a feeler, a talker, or a doer? That is, what gets the biggest workout—her mind, her heart, her mouth, or her hands? Which does she use least?

~  Is your character practical, thinking in terms of what can be done now to solve a problem, or a dreamer, thinking in terms of what might be possible? Is he a hoarder or a giver? Does he do for others with the expectation of thanks or reciprocity, or is he selfless, acting as he does simply because it’s the right thing to do or because of his own inner compulsions. Or is he unconcerned with others and their needs?

~  What communication skills does your character have?

~  Is your character modern or a throwback to the past? Or is he a visionary, looking to the future?

~  How does your character manipulate others? Is he good at it? Is he often the victim of manipulation himself?

~  Does your character bow to society’s dictates or fight against them? What are the hot-button social, religious, political, moral, or philosophical issues that move her?

~  Does your character like to be with others or spend time alone? Is she a be-with person, content to be with others, whether they actually interact or not, a do-with person, one who needs to be involved in the activities of those she loves (or emulates or envies), or a loner?

~  What is a character’s ultimate fantasy? If he can’t have the fantasy, what would he settle for?

~  Which sense (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, ESP) most affects your character? Which sense does he rely on? Which would he never notice?

~  Is the character competitive? In what ways? What makes him back down? What makes him compete more aggressively?

~  Does your character talk a lot or communicate with silence? Can he make his will known through a look or does he painstakingly explain every issue?

~  Is the character street smart, book smart, or people smart? Technologically savvy? Knowledgeable about the opposite sex?

~  What is your character hiding? What embarrasses her? What does she take pride in? What makes her cry?

Who does a character want to be when she grows up?

~  What is a character willing to sacrifice? What would she never sacrifice?

~  What action or thought or conversation does a character regret? What one thing does he wish he could do over?

~  What can your character never forgive?

Where is a character’s line in the sand?

~  Is the character a doer or a watcher? A starter or a completer? A finisher or a quitter? A leader or a follower?

___________________________

This list could go on and on forever. I hope it gives you ideas for delving into the depths of your main characters. There’s a lot to consider here, so don’t think you have to tackle all the questions at one time. And don’t think you have to put all that you discover about your characters into your books. Let what you know influence word choices and situations and events, but don’t be compelled to overtly tell readers everything you know about your characters. Keep some of that information to yourself.

When you know your characters, you can devise situations that make those characters respond. And respond at different levels of intensity, levels appropriate to the stimulus and to the moment in the story and in ways that will increase conflict slowly or blow it through the roof.

The answers to these and similar questions will help you get to know your characters, what moves and motivates them. What touches their emotions and their minds. What gets them up off the couch and involved in your story world.

Use these questions (and their answers) to design characters and story events that feed off one another, that connect. That drive story.

Get to know your characters in order to write convincing and enthralling fiction. Manipulate other characters and story events to bring out the best and the worst in your main characters.

Make a point to meet your characters soon.

***

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12 Responses to “Get to Know Your Characters”

  1. Philip West says:

    Astonishing! I have to catch my breath after reading your exhaustive list of questions to consider for character development. Couldn’t have come at a better time as I am smack in the middle of trying to understand the characters in a short story I’ve been having difficulty getting primed. Thanks again Beth!

  2. This blog post rocks! I am printing it out. What a way to help a writer develop well-rounded characters! I’m going to share on twitter and Facebook. Fabulous!

  3. Philip, I’m not sure if it’s an exhaustive list, but it certainly is exhausting. I’m glad it came at a perfect time for you and that it’s giving you ideas. Sometimes all it takes to get us going, or get us back on track if we’re wandering, is a look through an outsider’s eyes. Stepping away from the emotions and story events and character relationships, examining story elements in general rather than in particular, takes us out of the street-level view and allows us to pull back and see the big picture, maybe a satellite view instead. And sometimes that’s exactly the perspective we need.

    Here’s to success with your short story.

  4. Priscille, thanks for the shout-outs. I appreciate every one. I hope the questions give you insights into your characters that allow you to make them unique and memorable.

  5. Holly says:

    Great stuff here. As I read the questions, I found myself thinking, ‘Yes! Yes! That’s exactly what I need to find out to make this work!’ I have a character that, although I have her voice down well, I haven’t been able to quite solidify yet. I think it’s because she’s a girl. I’m oddly sexist in my writing. I write much better through male eyes.

    Anyway, this post was fantastic, and will hopefully help me and my MC out of the rut. *hits print* Thanks, Beth!

  6. You’re very welcome, Holly.

    I’m not surprised that some writers write the opposite sex better—we no doubt think about them more often than we do people of the same sex, imagining what they’re thinking and saying and planning. We want to get inside their heads. Plus it’s new territory—writers are always looking for something new and what’s new and different if not the minds and emotions and reactions of the opposite sex?

    I hope you have good success with your character.

  7. I’m working on a couple stories and I’ve been looking for questions like this to ask my characters for months. While this is an extensive list of questions, they aren’t unlike things we get asked ourselves by other people. Thank you!

  8. Cat, you’re welcome.

    When we’re trying to figure out who are characters are, it’s sometimes difficult to come up with the questions because we’re so focused on our characters in particular rather than characters in general. It’s tough to take a wide impersonal view when our characters are right up in our faces, distracting us with their personalities and histories and needs. I’m glad this was helpful.

  9. Dear Beth,
    This is an absolute fantastic list! It helped me loads with getting to know my own characters, which, I feel will help me write my first book. I hope one day it will be published and it will be mostly because of all of your posts that help us all so much!
    Thank you very much,
    Ethyn

  10. Jenni says:

    I am currently writing a book and am having a hard time making a character seem extremely intelligent. I understand that most of the details of intellectual persuasion come from the dialect and thoughts, but I seem to be having the hardest time doing so. Any help is greatly appreciated.

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  2. [...] the questions I’m asking my characters aren’t my own. They can be found on The Editor’s Blog: http://theeditorsblog.net/2013/03/22/get-to-know-your-characters/. Let’s get [...]