When I wrote my first book, I was devastated that early readers didn’t respond to one of my main characters the way I’d hoped. He was supposed to be heroic, brave, and complex. They saw him as arrogant and erratic. I had to explore what wasn’t coming through about him in my writing and how I could fix it.
The experience taught me that crafting characters is a skill writers can develop by working through a methodical process. In the past, when mentoring writing students, I’ve asked them to create a character sketch for each of the main players in their story. I invite them to get to know their characters intimately before they even begin writing. I remind them they likely won’t use most of this information in the story itself, but it will guide them in portraying those characters authentically and believably, with depth and voice. Once they do put pen to paper, or fingers to the keyboard, these complex, nuanced personalities they’ve created should come through loud and clear in the narrative.
Here are some questions, beyond physical appearance, that I’ve created to help writers get to know their characters intimately in order to bring them to life on the page.
A character’s early life and formative years can have a lasting impact on their perspectives and behavior. It’s important for the writer to know these types of details, even if they aren’t discussed directly in the story.
- Where did they grow up?
- Do they have siblings? Family issues?
- Traumatic experiences?
- Educational background and work history?
- Past relationships?
We all have personality traits that our close friends should be able to articulate: outgoing, funny, shy, etc. With the characters in our books, certainly these major qualities should be obvious to readers, but to reveal their nuances, we may need to dig a little deeper. Sometimes it helps to think about subtler things, or how a character would behave in different circumstances. This is by no means an extensive list but you can think of questions like these to help guide you.
- Do they need order or can they function in clutter and chaos? Do they make their bed in the morning?
- Are they a rule follower or breaker?
- Are they an adrenaline junkie? Do they love rollercoasters and skydiving?
- Do they have any quirks?
- What are their hobbies or interests?
Our motivations as human beings may change over time, depending on where we are in our life’s journey. For example, a person’s perspective may change greatly after the birth of a child. A soldier’s purpose may change when the war is over. Think about the difference between long-term motivation and immediate goals. When your reader meets your character, what is that character’s motivation? Here are a couple of example questions you can use to find the answer.
- Are they seeking redemption? Recovery?
- Are they driven by revenge?
- Are they protecting someone or something?
Characters live inside our heads. They’re our imaginary companions and the more time we spend with them, the more they reveal to us. The better we, as writers, are able to visualize and understand them, the easier it is for us to portray them to readers.