12 Questions to help with character development.
Recently I read something by Barbara Poelle, it’s not very long so I want to share it with you. It went, “If you’re struggling with writing a character, write 20 things that the reader will never know about your character. These will naturally bleed into your writing and provide a richness even though you don’t share the detail.” I really loved this and it made me think about doing a little research about character development and posting my findings for you all, here on The Writing Piazza.
For those who are not yet believers in developing amazing characters, you should know the importance of taking the time to do so. And believe me, it takes time to really do it well. Having believable, relatable characters are essential to pretty much any genre of novel you might be interested in writing. Why is it so important? Because your reader is inevitably living your story vicariously through your characters. If you want them to care a hoot about what’s going on in your story, you need a well-developed character whose shoes they won’t mind spending some time traipsing about in. The more people care about your characters, the more they will invest in your story. So take some time to really work on your characters before you begin writing, it will save you loads of time later on.
So I took to the web to do a little research. I could just tell you some things I do to help develop my characters, but I thought it would be even more helpful to give you some other great tips that I’ve come across. I think there is so much great info out there on character development that it’d be good to have a place where all those good ideas could come together to help all of you develop some killer characters (I mean that in both, the kind of characters who kill and the kind that are just super awesome, sense of the word).
So without further exposition, here are some questions you can answer about your character that will help you round them out.
1. How does your character speak?
Are they formal, informal, do they have a large vocabulary or small vocabulary? I’ve seen characters that only used contractions for positive words (i.e. he’s, I’m, you’re, etc.) but not negative ones (don’t, can’t, etc.). You don’t have to get that specific if you don’t wish to, but the key is to be consistent. I have a character that does not use contractions at all. It was a pain going through the whole manuscript just to check his lines for contractions, but the key was that I was consistent and it gave his character a very distinctive voice. So decide how your character speaks and then make sure it remains consistent.
2. What does your character’s history?
Who we are is shaped by where we come from. If you want your character to “feel real” to your readers, they have to have a history. It may be things the reader never knows, but the fact that you know it will shape the decisions that your character makes and the dialogue they speak. If you develop that history for your characters, it will show in your writing and give your character that real deal feel. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)
3. What does your character look like?
Some writers don’t like to get too detailed when they describe their characters. They want their readers to have the opportunity to give a face to the character. This is fine, but as the author, you should have an idea in your mind if for nothing other than consistency. If in chapter one you have your character pull their long, flowing hair into a messy bun, then you know in chapter fourteen that their tresses will still be damp a while after they climb out of the river you dropped them in. You won’t get that detail wrong later on because you have an idea of what your character looks like.
4. What are your characters hopes and dreams?
This may seem like a waste of time to you, but a character’s motivation is extremely important for plot progression. If you want your character to start at point A and wind up at point B, there needs to be something that drives your character to do that. And sometimes, that drive comes in the form of hopes and dreams. Plus it adds a depth to your character and it helps your reader invest in them.
5. How does your character relate to those around them?
Again, the word consistency is prevalent. If your character is a raging B word throughout most of the book but then offers to drive someone to the airport in the last chapter, that won’t ring true with your readers. They will call shenanigans on you and your character. Make sure that the way your character relates to those around them is consistent, or else have a really, really good reason why they are acting differently towards someone.
6. Is your character relatable?
I guess this would better be described as, no one is perfect. Everyone has flaws and/or vices. Things they struggle with. Things that annoy even those who love them most. Make sure your character does too. Even Superman has his Kryptonite. If you want people to buy into your story, you need characters they can relate to. And if you want people to relate to your characters, they can’t be perfect.
7. What are the character’s pet peeves?
Ok, this one isn’t essential, but I just loved it. I think it would really add authenticity to your characters. We all have pet peeves so if you’ve got the space, then add this in there. Even if you don’t have the space, if you have it in mind when writing the character, it will show through in subtle ways when you write the character. It makes the character unique and it makes the character more three dimensional. It doesn’t take that much to come up with something like this and it can really add depth to your character development.
8. What does your character like?
This is a bit of the opposite of the pet peeve question but it’s even more important and it ties in with motivation. Character motivation is extremely important. A character that is a chocoholic will explain why they are running to the gas station at twelve thirty at night for some ice cream when they get attacked by your bad guy. Something as essential to your plot progression as your protagonist being attacked by your antagonist could potentially be brought about by your protag’s love of sweet chocolatey goodness. This is where character development is key. You don’t want to wait until it’s happening to be like ‘oh by the way my character likes chocolate and then went out to get a candy bar when…’ you develop this detail prior to the big attack scene so when your character jumps in their car at midnight your reader knows it’s because they’re craving their favorite treat and not that it’s just a set up to get them within striking distance of your bad guy.
9. What is your character’s typical day like?
Again, this may not seem like an important detail, but real people have real lives. Well most of us do anyways (Netflix is kinda like having a life right?). So your character needs to have a life. And unless your character is Jack Bower, then they are most likely going to have to live their “real life” at some point in your story. You need to know what that looks like or else your character won’t feel real to your readers. So think about what their typical day looks like. Not everyone fights terrorists every hour of the day.
10. What does your character like to do for fun?
Again, this may be something that never gets written specifically in your story, but it will come out in your writing. It will add that layer of depth, guide motivation and help you maintain your consistency if you have it in your own mind (or written in your notes) what your character considers a good time.
11. How does your character handle problems?
In real life people are generally consistent in the way they do things. They may be entirely contradictory at times, but they are usually consistent in their contradictions. The way we handle problems is no exception. Some people like to face their problems head on as soon as possible. Some people like to run away from their problems. Some people like to get all the facts before attempting a solution, some people like to fire at the hip. That doesn’t mean your character can’t “grow” as your book progresses. If they start off running from their problems but then grow to where they are sticking around to face them by the end of the book, that works. It’s just those giant leaps out of nowhere that cause your reader to go, sheyeah right, as if. So make sure it’s consistent, or if you want them to “grow” make sure there’s a believable reason for the change and that it doesn’t just happen overnight.
12. What does your character’s room look like?
This one I mostly just threw in for funzies. It really helps you understand your character if you have a picture in your mind of what your character’s room looks like. The more you understand your own characters, the better you will write them. And usually, the more details you give them, the more realistically you will write them. So go ahead and take some time to really develop your characters. Even if they specifics never reach the final pages that your readers see, it will come through in your writing. It will help you believe in your characters. And as cheesy as it sounds, if you believe in them, the easier it will be for your reader to believe in them.
Thus ends this post about character development. If you’re looking for some further help constructing the details of your characters, a good site I found helpful was: Character Development. Or if you’d like to see what other resources we have to offer here on The Writing Piazza please go to our Writer’s Resources Page and see what we’ve go going on there!