Thursday, February 18, 2016

Some Actually Useful Character Questions

Character development is a major issue for a lot of writers. Character drives most stories, and is the main reason why a lot of readers care about stories at all. Even if your plot is original, your story won't work if your characters aren't fascinating, complex, and realistic. So, a lot of writers try to use character questionnaires- basically these surveys to fill out for your characters, which are available all over the Internet. They can be fun, but they're also not usually very useful. And sometimes they're not fun because you're like "what would my character order at Starbucks? I don't know, I don't even know the Starbucks menu! Starbucks doesn't even exist in my universe!"

So I thought for today I would compile some useful character questions for fleshing out your characters and getting to know them a little better. I couldn't come up with a whole lot of them, but that's because the answers aren't really short one-word things so much as full paragraphs of analysis and backstory.

How do they talk, and why?
This is useful for developing dialogue styles. Each character should have a unique enough speaking style that you can tell what they're saying even without a dialogue tag. To establish this kind of unique dialogue, step away from the story and figure out how each character talks. Do they use big words, lots of slang, a particular dialect? Short sentences or long monologues? Awkward insecure "um"s peppering their speech, or properly enunciated grammar? You should also find the root in the character's personality for their dialogue style. If you understand the character's personality, you'll get a better feel for how they speak.

What were the most important events of their life before the story started?
Stories famously consist of "protagonist's life was like this, then everything changed when plot." There isn't a plot if something doesn't change, and that change affects the characters. To mark how important the change is, you should understand how they were before any of this started. The events of their life before the story are what makes your character on page 1 and will continue to be relevant until the end of the story.

What's their fatal flaw? What are their other real flaws? Where did they originate?
Fatal flaws are part of classical story structures, but they're useful because they're what cause a character to screw up the direction of the plot. And characters need to screw up their missions, otherwise it's boring. They also need to have plenty of other flaws, otherwise they're boring. And they need to be real flaws, the kind of thing that would make you really be irritated with someone if they had those flaws in real life. If your character doesn't have any flaws, don't worry- you can find their flaws naturally from their other traits. Are they smart? Maybe they're pretentious or arrogant. Are they shy? Maybe they're shy to a fault and socially awkward. Are they confident? Maybe they're stubborn and refuse to listen to others.
Also, it helps to understand where these flaws come from, because it will help the character's journey to overcome them be more poignant and real.

What's their favorite book/TV show/musical artist/etc?
Often we associate books, TV shows, and stuff like that with personality traits. If you have to try and pin down favorite works of art for your character, you'll have to figure out what kind of things they like and why they like them.

Why do they want to do the thing they have to do for the plot?
Why does Frodo want to take the ring to Mordor? Why does Holden Caulfield want to mope around New York City for a few days? If your character has no driving reason to do their plot thing, they're just some vessel for the events of the plot. They have to have something deep within themselves that makes them decide to do the stuff they do. What is it?

What are they afraid of? What triggers a serious emotional reaction in them?
Characters should have to come up against something they fear, or something that makes them react emotionally in a serious way. You should know what this is and why, so that you can handle these scenes better.

What characteristic do they most pride themselves on?
Keep in mind, this rarely matches up with their actual best characteristic. You should figure out how the character sees themselves so that you see how they present themselves to the world, and then how they will inevitably have to deal with presenting their true selves to the world and to themselves.

Who is their family? How do they get along with them?
"Family" doesn't necessarily mean blood family- it means the people that they trust and rely on. It can be possible that they don't have that, but at least figure out what constituted the place where they came from and the people associated with that.

What people, events, media, etc influenced their way of thinking the most?
Your character has a certain view of the world and of life. You should know what that is and where it came from.

How do they feel about the other characters? Why?
This is more of a character relationship thing, but it also helps to understand how your character views the world and will help you write their interactions with the others.

What's their Hogwarts house?
This is a notoriously difficult question that has split families apart in trying to decide the right answer. Because of this, you will have to peer into your character's personality a lot in order to try and determine which house is right for them. The definition of each of the houses is pretty complex, and people are not singularly brave, smart, nice, or ambitious- so trying to determine which complex set of characteristics best matches them forces you to think a lot about the character.

OK, well, I hope these helped. If you have other suggestions, please share them in the comments. As usual, sorry that this is going up late Thursday night instead of Wednesday afternoon. It's because I am not a very reliable person.
Thanks again,

1 comment:

  1. On the contrary, you are a VERY reliable person. Proof: I was not even a little bit surprised to see a HP concept used as a serious tool. We can always rely on you to somehow insert HP into any and all subjects.
    Of course, I totally agree that anyone's Hogwarts house affiliation is of supreme importance.
    Other than that, excellent advice, as always.