How to Develop Characters in a Book

Guest Post by Irene Watson

Writers who want to create realistic and effective characters need to know more about their characters than their readers ever will. Authors can get to know their characters by interviewing them. Their answers help to keep the facts straight and not only to develop the character but also perhaps to motivate the plot. A real character has a past, with past and present relationships, good and bad memories, likes and dislikes, and a host of other details that can be used to create great fiction.

An author who wants to create a realistic character needs to know everything possible about that character, not only to keep the facts straight, but also to understand that character’s motivations. While critics often differentiate between a plot-driven and a character-driven story, a writer who does his or her work well will find that the character’s motivations will drive the plot, and understanding the character’s past is the key to understanding his or her motivations for the present and the future. Asking the character a series of questions not only helps to create a realistic character, but often the oddest or seemingly most random questions will result in new information about the character that can help a writer to overcome writer’s block.

Creating a character questionnaire for each major character can lead to richer fiction and greater focus. Following are some sample questions to ask your character. Envision the character sitting in the room with you and telling you about him- or herself. Then fill in the answers to the questions as they are provided. Depending on your character, you might find many other questions to ask that will provide you with an additional understanding of the character and more material for your story.

FACTS:

  1. What is your full name?
  2. How did your parents decide on your name?
  3. How tall are you?
  4. What color is your hair?
  5. What color are your eyes?
  6. How much do you weigh?
  7. What is your birthday (month, date, and year)? (Note: It’s important to pinpoint this date so you can figure out details about the character’s past and how old he or she would have been during certain events. It might be a good idea to create a character timeline.)
  8. What is your father’s name?
  9. What is your mother’s name?
  10. What are your grandparents’ names?
  11. Do you have any siblings? What are their names, birthdates, and birth order?
  12. Where were you born?
  13. Where were your parents born?
  14. Where were your grandparents’ born?
  15. Where do you live now?
  16. Do you have any medical problems, diseases, injuries?
  17. Do you have any distinguishing marks on your body (a mole, a birthmark, a missing finger, a tattoo, etc.)?
  18. What religion are you, and why?
  19. What is your annual income?
  20. How much money do you have saved?
  21. What kind of house/apartment do you live in?
  22. What kind of car do you own?
  23. Do you have any pets?
  24. When will you be able to retire?
  25. Are you married? If so, what is your spouse’s name?

(Note: You can make a new character sheet for the spouse if the person is significant and ask that character all of these questions as well. Depending on the main characters in your story, you might also do the same for the parents, grandparents, siblings, children, etc. It might be interesting to ask your characters to describe a specific event that happened to the family to see how they might all describe and respond to it differently).

HISTORY:

  1. Where did you go to school?
  2. How many times have you moved in your life?
  3. When did you move to where you live now?
  4. Did you attend college, trade school, etc. and where?
  5. What did you study in school?
  6. When you were a child, what did you dream of being when you grew up?
  7. What jobs have you held and what years? (What does your resume look like?)
  8. What is the first historical event you remember? (The Great Depression, Kennedy’s assassination, the moon landing, September 11th)?
  9. How did you feel/react to (Princess Diana’s death, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the Columbine shooting, Michael Jackson’s death, the O.J. Simpson Trial, Betty White’s 90th birthday, the Fall of the Berlin Wall, The Super Bowl in 1989, 2004, 2012, etc.)?
  10. Who did you vote for in the (1960, 1972, 1980, 1992, 2008) presidential election?
  11. What places have you visited on vacation?
  12. Have you visited any interesting places for work?
  13. Who was your best friend as a child?
  14. Who was your best friend in high school?
  15. Who was your best friend in college?
  16. Who is your best friend now?
  17. Who are all of the people whom you have dated?
  18. Why did your relationship with each person you dated not work out?
  19. What is the worst thing that ever happened to you?
  20. What is the best thing that ever happened to you?
  21. Who was your fourth grade teacher and what influence did he/she have on you?
  22. Who did you take to the prom in high school?
  23. What groups, organizations did you belong to in high school, or what sports did you play?
  24. How did you meet your current significant other?
  25. Who important to you has died in your life and how did you cope with their deaths?

PERSONALITY:

  1. What is your favorite color?
  2. What is your favorite place to vacation and why?
  3. What is your favorite book?
  4. Who is your favorite actor?
  5. Who is an actor you can’t stand?
  6. What is your favorite movie?
  7. Which movies do you absolutely hate?
  8. What is your favorite TV show?
  9. What is your favorite food(s)?
  10. What is your favorite restaurant?
  11. What most annoys you about (your mom, dad, brother, sister, wife, son, daughter, best friend, boss, co-worker)?
  12. How often do you exercise? What are your exercise goals?
  13. Which of your buttons does your mother (sister, brother, son, wife, girlfriend, etc.) like to push that sets you off?
  14. Do you believe it’s okay to tell a lie and under what circumstances?
  15. Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
  16. What things might you be asked to do that you hate doing but do anyway (attend birthday parties, weddings, do chores for your elderly aunt, etc.)?
  17. Have you ever been arrested and why?
  18. Who would you lay down your life for?
  19. Who would you really like to tell off?
  20. What are your spending habits?
  21. Do you enjoy hot weather, or do you prefer colder temperatures?
  22. What kind of relationship do you have with God?
  23. If you could describe yourself in one sentence, what would you say?
  24. If your (best friend, wife, daughter, boss, neighbor etc.) were to describe you in one sentence, what do you think he/she would say?
  25. What do you think is the meaning of life?

Hopefully, those are enough questions to get you a start in developing your character. Some of them may be irrelevant, but I suspect a lot of them will trigger more ideas and questions for you to ask.

It’s important to spend some time getting to know your character. Hang out with him or her. Envision the person riding in the car with you, spending time with you, going to dinner with you. After all, you might be spending the next several months or years writing about this person, so you want to get to know him or her as well as you can. I find that asking questions and letting the characters answer in their own voices can take a story to new and exciting places and make both the characters and the plot richer as a result. Don’t be shy. Ask your characters these probing questions and you’ll discover enough about them to fill many books.

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find  reviews  of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity  and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.

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Posted on September 16, 2012, in Publicity & Writing, Writing & Publishing. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I found your article on character development very good. I do a similar thing and I think that some of your interview questions were great. I recently did this on a book I am rewriting and it is really. flushing out some interesting facts which add a lot of texture as I write.( The would-be hero of this book is killed off in th books first scene but the dead man's spirit comes back and"infects" the book's actual hero. One story I remember about Hemingway always haunts me in a positive way. Once one of his characters sat on his bed in a hotel room looking out the window at night. He saw a soldier walking down the street with a woman, must have been his girlfriend because he stop and kissed her under a streetlight. Those characters never appeared "on stage" in Hemingway's book, but he wrote 17 pages of backstory about the soldier because Hemingway thought it might influence a nuance of how the soldier related to his girl friend. The soldier and girlfriend appear in one short scene. Hemingway really knew his characters! Ends up my character(who dies in the first scene of A CONSEQUENCE OF GREED) witnessed his parents being killed violently by 2 burglars who subsequently beheaded his brother with a wooden long-handled knife. When my character's brother was beheaded, his severed head falls to the floor and makes a dead "thud" sound my character(who lives only one scene) never forgets, and it affects his dying wife 200 pages later during her last breath. The implication of the head sound and long wooden-handledhandled knife are mentioned twice briefly in a 400 page book. Talk about nuance! It's easy to want to come back to the facts you uncover again and again because they add texture, but it is important to have restraint so characters don't become one-dimensional and cardboard. Writing textured fiction is, indeed, creating a whole, rich alternative world.I also use a "character grid, an Excel spreadsheet, that shows every character and every date in my book, so by using one you find interesting facts, like "when Harold, who's now forty-three , was fourteen, Buddy Holly died in a plane crash with the Big Bopper going to Minneapolis, so Harold has a brief moment on take-off, whenever he takes a plane, where he wonders if this plan ride will be his last, and he thinks of falling through the sky on a snowy night.

  2. An interesting article. I am in the middle of creating a character, not for a book, but a music and video project. Having intervened many, many authors one theme is constant, characters of any depth are rarely purely fictitious, they are based on real people, often merging together the traits of several people. The devil is in the detail. It is the minutiae that makes or breaks a character. But it must be done with care. Don’t do a Thomas Hardy and spend 50 pages describing the wart on the characters nose! Just lightly sprinkle in bits of small stuff when it is appropriate.Creating characters is an interesting exercise. My technique is a little different from Irene’s but we arrive at the same end point. As an interviewer, I use those skills. I write down a list of questions the same way that I do when interviewing a real person. Then I start to flesh out the dialog, the back and forth. I always discover something new by using this technique. Just like a real interview, you are in charge of setting the tone, it can be a nice fireside chat over a cup of coffee, or it can be a hostile drag out fight. The choice is yours depending on what you are trying to get out of it. What I like about this method is that you never know where it will lead you, but it most likely will cause you to modify the plot.

  3. Thank you for this post about characters, Irene. As you say, it's true that "critics often differentiate between a plot-driven and a character-driven story." I don't. The characters and what they do are the plot. The plot is the characters and what they do. Since my characters exist in prehistory, many of the questions you set forth in your post are laughably irrelevant. My characters would look at me and soon decide it was their bad luck to have an insane author writing their lives. But memorable characters do write their own stories. That's why, at every step of the way, the author has to ask them: "What would you do next?" And listen to their answers and write them down. As Simon Barrett says, questioning your characters "most likely will cause you to modify the plot." The plot, after all, belongs to them.

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