10 Questions You Can Ask to Better Understand Your Characters
by Writing Workshops Staff
A month ago
Character development is no doubt a make-or-break element of any piece of fiction. But how well do you really know the people who weave your story together? Besides authentic dialogue, understanding your characters will serve as a core force in driving your story forward.
How far back have you peeled their psyches? Do you fully understand why they act and react the way they do? A scintillating plot will only get you so far. Combine that plot with credible character motivation and complex reactions that mirror our human psychology, and you’ll be well on your way to mastering the craft.
Here are 10 questions to ask yourself about each character before you commit a word to the page.
Think about the first question a therapist asks a new patient, “So what brings you in today?” There’s something every human universally has in common - a list of major events that define who we perceive ourselves to be, and that also define our outlook on the world at large. Craft a character biography that includes all the events, relationships, challenges, and accomplishments that have woven your character’s personal narrative up to the point where your story begins.
Your character’s backstory will inevitably support their values, and vice versa. Are they freedom-oriented, passionate about community, driven by material success, or on a quest for deeper spiritual meaning? Think about their core values as well as their “ego mask” – are their daily actions aligned with the personality they present to the world, or is there a discrepancy?
Fear unveils crucial pieces of information about how your characters will react in certain situations. By understanding what they fear, you can monitor their reactions in crisis, ensuring they’re authentic to how they would actually feel. You can also put them in situations that test their resilience and inner strength. When confronting their worst-case scenario, do they succumb to the darkness or evolve into a higher version of themselves?
A story unfolds similarly to our own human narratives. We each have a goal of some sort; a desire that gets us out of bed every morning and creates a linear structure out of the chaos of life. The more you can understand what drives your characters and what they desire for the future, the easier it will be to structure a plot that supports - or challenges - their mission.
A character without flaws will always fall flat, failing to draw any emotional reaction from the reader. By identifying their Achilles heel, you’ll pin down the internal conflict that guides both their actions and reactions throughout the story. Focus on both the flaws that they possess some level of self-awareness about, and the blind spots that remain buried in their subconscious that the plot challenges them to notice.
Is your character a conformist or a rebel hero? A fighter or a pacifist? There are several different literary archetypes that can help you categorize your characters, many of which support a broader picture revealing how they function and interact in the world.
How do they talk to themselves on a daily basis? Dig deep enough, and you’ll hit a goldmine of valuable information about your character’s psyche. Is their inner dialogue anxious, constantly worrying about what’s coming next? Do they speak to themselves with a sense of shame and guilt, or is their confidence fully intact?
Eccentricities can add dimension to characters that would otherwise read as two-dimensional placeholders in text. Think about any idiosyncrasies that might stem from your character’s backstory, and add it to their biography to round out their development.
Positioning your character in the real world of public figures can help you write them in a realistic manner. Spend some time jotting down a list of people that your character would consider to be a positive influence, as well as the ones they vehemently despise. In addition to public figures, you can add archetypes and institutions to this list.
In order to understand the impact that your story will have on your characters, you must first understand what their current life looks like. This is a great place to explore the predictability of their day – do they exercise, meditate, and go to a 9-5 job? Do they sleep in, order delivery, and spend hours in front of the TV? Are they hanging out with friends, or do they prefer to spend hours alone in deep contemplation? The more you know about their daily life now, the easier it will be to write their reactions in an authentic manner.
Spend some time developing your characters by exploring the playground of their psyche. The better you know them, the richer your story will become.