WW: Five Things To Ask Your Characters

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Well, here we are. It’s Wednesday. Ish.

I thought I’d do something different this time around and talk character development. Not mine, no. Yours. (Yes, that was sarcasm. Your character development is what we DO here.)

Here are five questions which, when properly explored, might help you get to know your character better. When answering them, I suggest you think about your own behavior, and your friends’, and, well, all those other people you know who aren’t quite your friends, but you know them, so whatever. What kinds of people do what kinds of things? What does one thing say about a general trend in behavior in this person?

I tried to keep them as world-general as possible, so they’d apply to a broad variety of situations. But I want you to notice–no talk of worldbuilding here, no talk of magic, futuretech, personal appearance, etc. These answers shouldn’t become worldbuilding answers. At least, not mostly, though they might help you with that stuff too. They’re about personality.

If you want to share your answers, I’d be tickled. Maybe I’ll do mine too. We can share things. Because sharing is caring. Which, I guess, also means drinking is thinking, and hoarding is waterboarding.

1) Your character walks into a bar and orders a drink. Describe what happens.
Is the bar busy or quiet? Does your character know the bartender? Does s/he push past people to get to the bar, or patiently wait his/her turn? Does s/he order beer–if so, what sort? A Cosmo, LIT? A peaty twelve-year whiskey? Water? Does it get sipped, or gulped in one frantic movement? Does your character pass moral judgement on other people in the bar, if there are any? Does anybody get hurt? Do they deserve it?

2) How does your character affect his/her environment?
Does he or she litter? Does he or she treat small animals well, or torment them? Was his or her house built with local materials, or imported? Does your character know the names or flowers and trees, or barely know what a goddamn tree is? Does she hunt? If she hunts, does she just take what she can use, or does she hoard far more than she can eat for herself? If your character is drinking a glass of water and doesn’t have time to finish it for some reason, does he dump it at the base of a tree, or right in the middle of the street?

3) Your character gets caught in a small but bald-faced lie by a parent/guardian. How do they try to resolve the situation?
No ‘but my character is all aloooone’ nonsense, please. At some point, your character had parents, or at least a legal guardian. How would this situation have happened? Would your character try to white lie his or her way out of it, or tell the noble truth? Get mouthy and defiant? Did they succeed in escaping the situation? Feel guilty, if the blame got shifted to somebody else? If they didn’t–was the punishment in proportion to the crime? Did they suck it up, or weep like a crabby baby?

4) Your character has a WHOLE DAY off. No bills to pay, no world to save, nothing but twenty four hours of leisure time. What does he or she do?
No just answering ‘sleep’. C’mooon.

5) Your character has to be at the bank by noon. Trouble is, he’s not totally sure where ‘the bank’ IS in this town. He’s in a foreign city, it’s early, and he doesn’t speak the language. If he has a communications device, it’s out of battery/sparkly battery magic. How does he cope?
Does he spend valuable time trying to find this city’s version of an embassy? Go to the local market, try to charade out his request? Beat someone until they start speaking his language, intentionally or not? Search for somewhere that’s open, so he can buy a map? Collapse into manic tears? Start searching the city, in a circular pattern, for bank signs? Or would this never happen to him in the first place, because he’s just that goddamn organized?

Yes, all our characters have Mysterious Pasts (more on this subject later). However, like us, they spend 24/7 in the world of your choosing. They have to poop, go to the bank, go to work. They have embarrassing childhood stories, pet names they don’t want anybody else to hear, professional lives and private lives. They have that time when they were sixteen where they drank a whole bottle of Bailey’s on a dare, and had THE WORST hangover, the WORST, and told their mother they were ‘sick’ so they didn’t have to go to school, and etc., onward and outwards, more horrible childhood stories as you see fit.

These things–ordinary people things, anecdotes and nicknames and friends and embarrassing moments–make character. Yes, we’ve all had traumatic moments and yes, they do affect how we live and what we do. But if your character’s first boyfriend called him Binkypants in lovey-dovey moments, and he later on meets someone whose name/nickname is Binky, that’s going to have an affect on him too. How that relationship went–what it meant to him, how it ended, whether or not his boyfriend wound up being Douche Captain of the World of Tomorrow, all these things will affect his treatment of this person named Binky.

So don’t just draw from deep trauma and mystery for your characterization. Draw on the everyday, open-ended situations where your character has to make telling decisions. You might just find there’s more there–more for you to work with–than in your character’s Great Destiny as the Chosen One of his Mighty People. Because, yes, his parents were killed in a terrible fire, and yes, your villain was the arsonist. And that’ll affect you. But it was one moment in a life that stretches X number of years–there are a lot of other, less-traumatic moments in there too. And a person who was shaped entirely by one event, whose life has been lived as an endless series of reflections on one moment–this person is monomaniacal in the extreme. Probably pretty fucked up.

And, while we all wanted a little of that nebulous fucked-upedness in our characterization, too much of it leaves you with an unsympathetic character, incapable of learning or growing.

Not your hero, in other words. Maybe your villain.

Some more ‘everyday stuff’ to think about for your character:

1) How did this person’s parents/guardian put him or her to bed as a child?
2) What happened the first time your character got drunk? Has it happened yet? If not, what does your character THINK would happen?
3) Write a vignette about an occasion where your character was injured (semi-seriously: broken limb, stitches, etc.) as a child.
4) What kind of music does this person listen to, and how?
5) What happened the first time your character knew, without a doubt, that his or her parents/guardians were wrong about something?
6) Describe your character’s first relationship. If they haven’t had one yet, what do they THINK it’ll be like? How’d it end, and what did they learn from it?
7) Describe your character’s favorite outfit. How does s/he feel in it? Beautiful? Powerful? Comfortable?
8) What makes this person fall OUT of love?
9) Does your character arrive places on time? Early? A day late? How has this affected their chances in life?

And, for bonus points:

10) Your character TOTALLY clogs up a friend’s toilet. Like, totally. Like, there’s no coming BACK from how clogged this toilet is. Does she tell her friend? Try to find the plunger and fix it for herself? Just leave it: hell, it’s the guest bathroom anybody, nobody’ll probably know for days?

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8 thoughts on “WW: Five Things To Ask Your Characters

  1. I am in the process of revising a first draft, and I was thinking about “interviewing” each of my characters so I can get to know them better. These questions are great!

  2. Reblogged this on On Writing Dragons and commented:
    I saw this exercise and thought ‘what a lovely way to try and get to know my problematic character better’. The questions don’t fit the world so well, but I’m going to give it a go anyhow. I’m just going to give the first initial of my character, I’ll call him ‘N’, so here it is.

    1.) If he were to go into a bar, he would order a large mug of dark sweet ale, down it fast, and immediately get another. That mug, he would nurse for a good long while, unless he was with friends or celebrating, in which case, it wouldn’t be long before he needed a new mug. What happens in the bar sort of depends on the type of bar it is. Let’s say it’s a fancy place (in his world, it would be a place for various upper-class types – even lords may venture into such an establishment from time to time.) In this place, he would find a dark corner and sit around uncomfortably until it was time to go. Though were he with his brother (I’ll call him ‘E’), he might loosen up a bit and have a time. Now, if the bar were more of a place for travelers, soldiers and the like, he would be front and center at the bar, telling tales of adventure and debauchery. The thing is, he’s been out of that life for a while, and he’s a lot less connected with that life than he used to be, and so it would have the air of an out-to-pasture soldier telling of events long past.

    2.) N is not wantonly destructive to the landscape around him. Like anyone else trying to scrape a life from the land, he respects the world as a dangerous place. He is not a fan of the city, and when in nature notices all of the types of trees, plants and what-not across the landscape. By no means an expert, and not even really an enthusiast, he still appreciates the diversity of the forests. As a former soldier, and short-lived life as a farmer, he also doesn’t hold with waste. As time goes on through the story, this changes, and the character becomes even more in-tune with nature, noticing life and magic under every little rock, becoming almost obsessed with magic and all of it’s mechanics and nuances.

    3.) N is not given to lying, as a general rule, preferring to mislead by omission when necessary. He tends to be brashly honest and thoroughly unapologetic in instances where others might use a small lie to attempt to cover their own minor mis-deeds. This sometimes comes off as acting somewhat like a spoiled child. In no case does he allow someone else to take blame for something he’s done, but he will not suffer false accusations on himself, excepting to take responsibility for those he leads.

    4.) This is sort of an evolving situation with N. I’d say his back story has him at the pub with friends. The current bit of the story has him out in the forest hanging out with a dryad, then later the forest becomes a place for him to be, much later it will be something altogether different.

    5.) At his heart N is a strategist. He would attack the problem of the lost bank by searching the city in a methodical manner, starting with the most likely place for a bank to be, and moving out to less likely places, he would also spend that time looking for anyone who might help.

    Well, this was helpful, mostly… Still needs work, I think.

    1. Glad it got you somewhere, and you enjoyed it! I’m not usually a fan of writing exercises like this–I think freeform speculation gets you more places, a lot of the time–but for character motivation, quirky little vignettes can help you figure a person out a bit.

  3. My Character would totally go hunt a plunger down. Every time. Every one of them. All of them. Maybe that is something for me to expand on. All my characters are me!

    1. Obvs, you have plunger problems. 🙂

      Jin would call her friend in (assuming she has friends), mostly so her masterwork could be properly appreciated before flushing.

      Aurian would probably hunt the plunger down–actually, Aurian would probably go to SWATlike levels of stealth reconnaissance to hunt it down without letting anybody know what was going on. Hilarity would ensue.

      Monkshood would probably hunt the plunger down. Not out of a sense of decency, understand. Out of neatness.

      Vetiver would just leave it. Along with a post-it note with a little smiley face on it. And explosives, if she could find them. Because GO BIG OR GO HOME.

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