Ask Your Characters Some Tough Questions!

30 Mar

by Julie Eshbaugh

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Where does a writer start when he or she sets out to create a character?  There are COUNTLESS character worksheets available, and most of them will serve as a fairly good starting point when it comes to building a character.  But no single “fill in the blank” worksheet will create a character for you.  You may be able to answer questions about what color eyes your character has or how many brothers she grew up with or what his favorite class in school is, but I can answer those questions about a lot of people, and yet I wouldn’t undertake the task of writing a book about them.

What I’m trying to say is that, to really put your reader in your character’s head, you need to go there yourself first.  You need to know what makes your character think and act the way he or she does.  And to do that, you need to ask your characters the TOUGH questions.

What are the tough questions?  They’re the questions you wouldn’t feel comfortable asking your best friend.  Questions you yourself wouldn’t want to have to answer.  You have to ask about things that are private, things that are personal, things that are embarrassing.

Here’s a suggestion.   Sit down at the keyboard and start with a blank Word document.  At the top of the page, type a difficult question and the name of the character you are asking this question.  Then type out the answer as a stream-of-consciousness response.  You may be surprised by what your character “dictates” in his or her answer.

Here are a few ideas for questions to get you started.  You don’t have to use any of these.  Then again, you may want to use several.  The right questions to ask will depend a great deal on your story and its setting.  But here are a few I’ve used:

  • When you were growing up, did you ever suspect that one of your parents cheated on the other?  Did you ever suspect that one of your parents hit the other?  Which would have been worse?  Why?
  • What single act are you most ashamed of?  How did you happen to commit this act?  Who knows about it?
  • If you knew you could do something forbidden and get away with it without anyone ever knowing, what would it be?
  • Everyone has secrets.  What secret thing about you would most shock your closest friend?
  • If you could change one thing about yourself, what would that thing be?  Why?  Would your friends be surprised by your answer?
  • If you could change one thing about your best friend, what would that thing be?  Why?  Would that person be surprised by your answer?
  • Have you ever purposefully caused suffering?  If so, why?  Would you do it again?
  • Everyone has disdain for something or someone.  Who or what do you consider yourself to be “above”?
  • What was your worst failure?  Do you ever think about it?  When do you think about it?  How do you feel about it now?
  • If you could achieve your greatest dream, but it would mean that your best friend would never achieve his or hers, would you take that deal?

Can you answer these questions about your characters?  Do you have others?  Please share your thoughts in the comments!

 

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Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency.  You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.

 

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21 Responses to “Ask Your Characters Some Tough Questions!”

  1. priscillashay March 30, 2011 at 12:58 AM #

    I just finished a story for my class and the character was forced to answer: When in a circle of cannibals and you are with a child would you sacrifice yourself or push the child to the front of the line?

    😀 (I had to write “in the spirit of” Cormac McCarthy’s The Road)

    • Julie Eshbaugh March 31, 2011 at 6:28 AM #

      What a great question to ask! I’m adding that to my personal list. 🙂 Thanks for your comment!

  2. Stephanie Relf March 30, 2011 at 3:31 AM #

    This is sooooo helpful, I’ve been trying to figure out my new MC for weeks! Thanks a lot!

    • Julie Eshbaugh March 31, 2011 at 6:28 AM #

      So glad you found the post helpful, Stephanie! 🙂

  3. Rowenna March 30, 2011 at 9:13 AM #

    Awesome questions–and I love the concept of really digging deep! Sometimes I reverse roles and think about what my characters would want to know about me–knowing what questions they would ask helps me know what’s important to them. (One keeps asking if I’m single. Seriously, buddy–find a hobby or something.)

    • Julie Eshbaugh March 31, 2011 at 6:29 AM #

      OMGosh, that’s HILARIOUS! I guess you’ve learned that particular character might be a bit lonely. 😉 Thanks for commenting!

  4. Gabriela Da Silva March 30, 2011 at 12:03 PM #

    Wow, it’s beena while. I dreamt of this blog yesterday, so… well, I’ve always obeyed my dreams, and all that.

    This was a very interesting post, Julie! As you said, there are plenty of character creation sheets out there, from the useful to the not that useful.

    I found that, sometimes, the hardest question to ask is “Why”. So your character trusts his/her mom over anyone else? Why?
    And once you have answered that question, try asking Why again. And again. This works wonders to penetrate deep into your characters’ personality and the issues around them, and it’s useful for everything, from eye color (sure, brown eyes are genetic – but from grandma? From father? And don’t we love purple eyes! Why?) to religious affiliation (??), trust issues and whether they drink.

    It has served me to clear some difficult plot points too – so yes, asking questions definitely gets you somewhere.

    • Kat Zhang March 30, 2011 at 3:48 PM #

      Gaby!!! Haha, this isn’t even my post, but I’m hijacking it to say HI!! Miss seeing you around 😀

    • Julie Eshbaugh March 31, 2011 at 6:31 AM #

      Hey Gabby! What a good point. Sometimes I think we forget to ask “why.” Thanks for your comment!

    • Gabriela Da Silva March 31, 2011 at 2:19 PM #

      Aww, I missed it here too! My computer busted and I was too busy getting the .doc files to notice my bookmarks were gone too =P

      But yeah, I’ll be around no 😀

  5. Marina March 30, 2011 at 12:14 PM #

    Wow, this is great. Definitely going to use this.

    • Julie Eshbaugh March 31, 2011 at 6:31 AM #

      Glad it helped you Marina! 🙂

  6. MD Irvine March 30, 2011 at 1:16 PM #

    I enjoyed reading this post. I have also found several character charts that delve into what character looks like, how many brothers/sisters they have but I definitely like the idea of digging deep. It’s good to know the answer to painful questions to help with character arc but I think situational questions also teach me about my character’s personality.

    For instance, what would my character do if
    -someone disagrees strongly with him
    – has to speak in public
    -has to wait in line for an hour
    -has a bad haircut
    -Enjoying steak dinner and someone lights up a cigar
    -Shortchanged at the supermarket
    -Discovers condoms in the purse/pocket of significant other
    -Propositioned by beautiful woman/handsome man
    – Car Breaks down
    -Finds money/jewelry on a bench
    – Discover friend/family is ill
    -React to practical jokes
    – what kind of practical joke will he play or will he even play at all

    • Julie Eshbaugh March 31, 2011 at 6:33 AM #

      Great list! I’m going to put it to use with my MC. I think the practical joke question is my favorite. That kind of thing really reveals a lot. Thanks!

  7. Becca March 30, 2011 at 10:13 PM #

    Hey thanks so much for the post and the replies. Definitely a good reminder of why this is my favorite writing blog!! 🙂

    • Julie Eshbaugh March 31, 2011 at 6:33 AM #

      Aw! Thanks Becca. I’m glad you liked the post! 🙂

  8. Liz Hellebuyck March 31, 2011 at 9:55 PM #

    Again I am feeling how new I am to the novel writing world. I was pretty sure I knew my characters until I read this post. It seems that, though the answers came easy, I didn’t know them beforehand. And thinking about the answers gave me a deeper understanding of how my characters think.

    • Julie Eshbaugh April 1, 2011 at 6:47 AM #

      Hi Liz! Thanks so much for commenting. Your experience reading this post was exactly the reason I wrote it. I’m so glad it helped you. 🙂

  9. Louise Broadbent April 1, 2011 at 10:44 AM #

    I am stealing those questions for my own future use.Thank you unsuspecting victim.

  10. Carolyn Arnold April 1, 2011 at 10:52 AM #

    Awesome post, and interesting questions. I’ll be making note of this site : )

  11. Andy Brokaw April 1, 2011 at 11:48 AM #

    Oh, wow, just doing thee first one in my head explained a heck of a lot about someone. Going to subject him to the others in actual type now…

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