Questions to ask your characters

It’s October, and that means prep time. One of the best things about doing NaNoWriMo, for me, is that it forces me to wait instead of diving right into a story I’m excited about, and I spend that time preparing. Outlining is one part of this. Another is test writing- writing cutscenes: backstory, exposition, or just my characters doing mundane things so I can get to know them. But what I’m working on today is character sheets. It’s nice before starting to writing to know all about the main characters. Here are a few questions to start with:

  1. What do they want most? To be left alone to have a peaceful life, to get out of their boring hometown, to find love?
  2. What do they need, in terms of personal growth? To be less selfish, to gain courage, to accept themselves as they are?
  3. What are they afraid of? What is the worst thing that could possibly happen to them? (Is that definitely going to happen in the book? Probably!)
  4. What are their talents? I love talents that seem random and useless but end up being exactly the thing to beat the bad guys. You don’t have to know yet how each will be handy- these may give you ideas later.
  5. What are their weaknesses? Are they physically frail, untrained, fearful, brash? You’d better believe they fail big because of these weaknesses, especially in act three.
  6. What’s their temperament like? Everyone has their own favorite scheme. Mine is the Magic the Gathering color wheel, but the four humors are popular and easy to grasp. Or you could do the Big Five. The important thing is that you have a good feel for how sociable they are, how quick they are to trust others, how long it takes them to make a decision, whether they’re emotional or impassive.
  7. What do they look like physically? Pale or dark skin? Long or short hair? Thin or heavyset? Do they have any scars or distinguishing marks? Whatever you do, don’t make every woman in the story flawless. Protagonists especially must be relatable. “Eyes too large” or “waist too thin for boobs” is not relatable.
  8. What do they like to wear? Do they wear a uniform or a distinctive outfit, or do they like to experiment with new fashions? What accessories are they never without? What have they got in their pocketses?
  9. How do they talk? Long sentences with big words, or short choppy ones? Do they swear? Do they use homespun metaphors? You should know if they have an accent, though trying to spell an accent phonetically is usually just annoying.
  10. Do they have any interesting hobbies or quirks? Any mannerisms? When they hear a number, do they immediately make it into a math problem? Does everything they think about end up a botany metaphor? Do they pace? What do they do when they’re happy, sad, or worried?
  11. What is their backstory? Where are they from? What environments are the most familiar and comfortable to them? What normal experiences have they not had- never been on a planet, never seen the sun, never fallen in love? Are their parents both living, and do they get along? Do they have siblings? What was the most formative experience in their life up to now? What’s a memory they’d rather not think about?
  12. Who is in their life right now? Do they have a lot of friends, or are they isolated? Are they married or in a relationship? Do they have kids? What role do they have in their friend group? Are they the leader or the odd one out? Likewise, in relationships, are they the needy one, the cold one, the bossy one? How do they treat the people closest to them?

After answering all these questions, you’ll likely have a much better sense of your characters. Now try writing a few cutscenes with them. Have them go out for coffee with someone they haven’t seen in awhile, and see what they talk about. Or put them at a job interview, but write from the perspective of the interviewer. Have a loved one confront them about an issue they have, and have them react badly. Do they yell or stonewall? What are their reasons for refusing to change? At this point it will be clear they need some dramatic events to happen to push them into change- like the story you’re about to write!