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!