38 Questions to Ask Every Character

You’ve probably seen a TON of lists of questions that demand “These questions NEED to be asked”. And what’s on them? Mostly stuff that you don’t really need to know to unfold a great character. (NO offense, seriously. I just wish people would stop telling me I need to know what kind of underwear my character wears.)

This list is different.

I know because I read all those other lists out there and picked the things that (I think) every writer should know about their character. Some of them are just for fun, but most really help me narrow down how I’m going to write a specific character. I thought it would be nice, while we’re working with character development, to share these with you.

They’ve helped me build characters, as well as stories. They dig deep into the character’s psyche, so you know where s/he is coming from. And they SERIOUSLY reveal character.

I will also share some of my favorite answers, after the list. So, without further ado, let’s begin.

38 QUESTIONS TO ASK EVERY CHARACTER

1. How old is s/he (physically AND mentally)?

2. Did s/he have a happy childhood? Why or why not?

3. What are their past and present relationships and how do they affect him/her?

4. What does s/he care about?

5. What is s/he obsessed with?

6. What is his/her biggest fear?

7. What is the best thing that ever happened to them? Worst?

8. What is their most embarrassing moment?

9. What is his/her biggest secret?

10. What is the 1 word that defines him/her?

11. What do you know about him/her that s/he doesn’t?

12. What music does s/he sing when no one else is around?

13. What is his/her favorite movie?

14. What is his/her favorite piece of clothing? Shoes?

15. Who is his/her favorite person?

16. What calms him/her?

17. Does s/he play any instruments?

18. What is his/her catchphrase?

19. What is his/her favorite excuse?

20. What is his/her favorite song?

21. What annoys him/her?

22. What is the most beautiful thing s/he has ever seen?

23. What is the worst injury s/he has ever sustained? (in the past)

24. Has anyone close to him/her died?

25. What would s/he wish for if s/he found a genie?

26. What is the most frightening handicap s/he could sustain? (in the present or future)

27. When and where was s/he happiest?

28. What is something s/he can’t resist?

29. What is something people misunderstand about him/her?

30. What is his/her favorite holiday?

31. What are his/her hopes and dreams?

32. What would s/he die for?

33. What would mentally destroy him/her?

34. Why would s/he defend a stranger?

35. What does s/he lie about?

36. Does s/he have a positive or negative body image?

37. What object will s/he never give up?

38. What can s/he do at the end that s/he can’t do at the beginning?

A lot to take in, I know. Let me explain how this works.

It’s OK to think outside the box. Sometimes the answer will just pop out of nowhere, sometimes you’ll really have to think hard to get to the heart of the issue. (P.S. This list is also great to help create backstory).

I’ll give you some examples of some of my characters’ answers. They’re…. interesting, to say the least.

We’ll start with a question where my character dropped a quote in my lap that completely answered the question.

Q: What is his biggest fear?

A: “I am in the desert… This. This right here is my biggest fear.” (He’s afraid of dirt.)

Sometimes, the way your character thinks about something will come out in their answer, or even the way they talk. Like this answer from a Texas boy character.

Q: What is the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen?

A: A Texas sunset by the Gulf beach.

Not how I would have put it, but characters do that sometimes.

Sometimes an answer can be as simple as…

Q: What is one thing she can’t resist?

A: A good churro.

Sometimes, your character’s answer will be symbolic. Usually of something in their own life. LIke…

Q: What is her favorite holiday?

A: New Year’s. New beginnings.

(Talk about backstory!)

Lastly, sometimes your character will give an answer that completely shapes how they see themselves, other people, or even the world.

Like this fragile flower:

Q: What was her most embarrassing moment?

A: Found boyfriend with her best friend. On date night.

Ouch. That probably shaped how she views guys and herself. Because of this, she doesn’t have great self-worth. Think about those kinds of experiences. Why the character is who they are.

Do that, and your characters will end up pretty amazing.

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Did you like what you read today? Do you have questions, comments, or cat-killing curiosity about something? If so, please either comment on this post or visit the Contact page and drop me a note!

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Blah, Blah, Blah… (a guide to writing dialogue that won’t put your readers to sleep)

What makes good dialogue? When do you know you’ve spent too much time telling people things they never needed to know? Have you ever read a passage of dialogue and thought to yourself, “Oh, come on! That is so fake!”?

I know how you feel. Dialogue like this often suffers from a lack of studious editing. When it comes to writing dialogue, you should write from your heart and edit from your head. (This is also called “write hot, edit cool” and you’ll see it mentioned in a TON of creative writing courses, books, and blogs. It’s good advice.)

Dialogue writers also tend to give too much exposition, all at once. It’s an illness that is common among writers, but I am starting (right here, right now) a campaign to end it.

Overexposition sounds a lot like this:

“Who are you?”

“My name is Jane. I’m new around here, so you probably haven’t seen me before. I just moved in from Texas, but I must say I’m really enjoying this weather. I haven’t been in weather so nice in a long time, ever since my (brother/cousin/sister/parent) died in a car crash. It was raining that night, I remember that much. I almost lost it after that. Depression, suicidal tendencies, the works. Thankfully, I’m better now and looking forward to my new job. Did I mention I’m going to work at (insert local company)?”

First of all, all the first character asked was “who are you?” People usually aren’t so gushy around people they don’t know. And, depending on the situation, they may not want the other person to know who they are. There are 3 correct responses to the first question.

#1 = “I’m Jane.”

#2 = “Who wants to know?”

#3 = “You don’t need to know.”

So much simpler.

The second thing I saw in this generous amount of exposition (that’s putting it nicely) is that it’s too much, too soon. Where’s the characterization? Why aren’t we revealing this tragic backstory in bits and pieces, forcing the reader to keep reading to find out what really happened? Things to keep in mind as we move forward.

Okay, so you have the overexposition illness. Don’t worry, there are things you can do to fix it. So breathe, put down the cake you’re gorging yourself on, and listen to the rest of what I have to say.

Dialogue is a learned craft. A craft that takes time to perfect. However, I can give you a kick start.

People who aren’t good at dialogue can learn a lot from movie/screenplay writers. For examples:

“Are you giving me attitude, Spock?”

“I am relaying many attitudes. To which are you referring?”

or…

“I am a god, you dull creature!”

or…

“What was that?”

“You gave me the nod.”

“Yeah, the punch him in the face nod. Not the ‘throw him off the building’ nod. At most… at most that was a break his fingers nod.”

or…

“Do you know what the preservation room is for?”

“Delicious jams and jellies?”

Okay, so now that we’ve seen these golden gems of Hollywood genius, let’s talk about why screenwriting dialogue works and what we can learn from it.

Point #1 – Dialogue should expose true character

What?!?

Let me break it down.

Whenever someone talks, they tell us a little more about themselves, even when they don’t mean to. It’s the same with your characters. They’re people, right? So whatever they say should give some insight into what they’re all about. The “I am a god, you dull creature!” example (from Marvel’s The Avengers) is a prime example of this. Obviously, this guy is full of himself and that’s why he thinks that.

So, what can your character say that points to what they’re really like?

Point #2 – Dialogue should NEVER be “on the nose”

Unless you are writing a character who only says what they really think (like Spock, and even he isn’t “on the nose”) then you shouldn’t write what that character is actually feeling. Real people lie all the time. “How are you?” “I’m fine.” Things like that.

Characters lie too. They avoid questions. “Do you know what the preservation room is for?” (National Treasure)

Instead of answering “no”, Riley avoids the question with sarcasm of his own. People do this in real life, which makes it so much more believable on screen or in print.

Point #3 – Dialogue should elude to backstory

You’ll find that I am a HUGE fan of backstory. Dialogue is my favorite way to elude to an interesting story in the character’s past. Example:

“I’m not going to hurt you.”

“Why?”

“Because I won’t be like him.”

Him? Who is him? Why doesn’t he want to be like him? WHYYYYYY?!? (I know, of course, because I wrote it. Sorry to leave you hanging.)

When writing dialogue, ask yourself this: What happened in this character’s past and how does it apply to what he’s doing now?

Point #4 – SUBTEXT

I admit, subtext is a lot like backstory, but it IS different. Trust me.

Subtext is a helpful tool to help you avoid saying something too bluntly. Subtext is when you say something without really saying something. It’s difficult to master, but once you do you’ll find that it’s totally worth it.

Let me just say: “You were my new dream” (instead of plain old “I love you”) in Tangled. So much subtext! And then, tears. Okay, I’m done gushing now.

(Hint: classic lines are usually full of subtext)

I hope you found this helpful to help you craft dialogue for your character. It’s really important that they say what they mean, but in an interesting way. Never forget, they are your creation and your friend, so give them the treatment they deserve.

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Stay tuned for next week’s exciting conclusion to the 4-part character series!

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Did you like what you read today? Do you have questions, comments, or cat-killing curiosity about something? If so, please either comment on this post or visit the Contact page and drop me a note!

It was good to have you as a visitor today! Please drop by again, or become family by following the Write Knowledge. Thank You.

Perception Filter

An interesting concept, to be sure. I read once (and also heard someone speak on the fact) that everyone views life through their own perception filter, even without realizing it. What is a perception filter, you ask? It is a culmination of your entire backstory.

So why am I writing about this? Because it’s the same for your characters. Their backstory will affect their perception filter, the way they see the world. So many things come together to make this, that it’s best if your really know your character’s backstory, so that you know how s/he will see the things around him/her.

Let’s talk backstory, then.

For the beginning of this lesson, (and yes, it is a lesson) I will refer back to the crazy people known as fandoms that I mentioned in my first blog post. They’re really very helpful when it comes to teaching about writing, and I’ll tell you how. Without realizing it, those crazy people expose just HOW MUCH work went into writing those books and movies. I won’t go into all the details here (maybe in a later post, we’ll talk about fandoms) but I will use a few examples of what I’ve seen these people write that lends itself to backstory.

Example #1 – The Avengers/Loki fandom

One of the craziest fandoms out there. (Seriously. Don’t make them mad, they may maul you) However, they have great insight into Loki’s backstory in Marvel’s The Avengers. They wonder about where he went after the first Thor movie, and they deduce that he’s been through something terrible to make him so mean (their words, not mine). How did they get this much backstory on him, even though he didn’t say a word about it?

Insinuation.

Insinuation is your friend. Love it. Cherish it. Keep it close. Just because you know every single detail about your character’s backstory (which, by the way, is simply everything that happened before the book begins), doesn’t mean you have to tell the readers.

In a novel I wrote during NaNoWriMo last year, the following conversation happened.

“You’re wondering if there’s anything you could have done different, and you’re blaming yourself.”

“How could you possibly know that?”

“Because I do!” She crossed her arms and set her jaw.

Liam stopped to think, and finally came up with one question. “What happened to you?”

“Life.”

I didn’t tell you anything about what happened in her past, but look closely at the dialogue. She never addresses the questions head-on, and she never says what she’s really thinking. However, her comments lend themselves to her backstory. I personally think (but I could be biased) that her last statement, “Life”, denotes a tough experience she’s had in her past. I never say as much, but it is insinuated!

Example #2 – The Frozen/Disney Princesses fandom

Okay, not my favorite movie, you can like it if you want, Disney and I just don’t always get along.

Moving on.

Disney did a very clever thing when they (either on purpose or accidentally on genius) made the backstory to their movies connect. I put this under the Frozen Fandom category, because that is when people stood up and took notice.

More than one person has pointed out that the ship that Elsa’s parents are in looks exactly like the one in The Little Mermaid, and that Elsa and Anna’s mother looks eerily similar to the queen from Tangled.

When character’s backstories connect, it brings yet another depth to your writing. That guy she runs into, maybe she’s met him before. That coincidental witness, maybe s/he knows the villain. Things get interesting when characters know things about another character’s backstory that they shouldn’t. Try it some time.

Okay, so I know I started out talking about perception filters and kind of digressed from there, but now I’m back.

Reasons you should see life through your character’s eyes, not your own: 1) it brings them to life, 2) it makes them more credible, 3) your readers will go gaga for someone with his own, realistic world views.

But, how do you know how to build your character’s perception filter? Glad you asked! I have a list for you.

backstory
Look! A list! Kind of a worksheet, but trust me, it’ll be fun! Go ahead and download it.

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Did you like what you read today? Do you have questions, comments, or cat-killing curiosity about something? If so, please either comment on this post or visit the Contact page and drop me a note!

It was good to have you as a visitor today! Please drop by again, or become family by following the Write Knowledge. Thank You.

What’s In A Name?

Hi again, and welcome to week 1 of a 4-part, February-length series on building characters. Yes, I said it. BUILDING characters.

“But, don’t characters just come to you?” you ask. The answer is simple. No. And yes. Some characters just appear, fully built, and all you have to do is write down what they’re doing at the moment. Others take some work, and let me fill you in on a little secret. You’ll have to work to build people more than you’ll have to watch already built characters. Confusing enough for you? Good!

So, topic of this week: What’s In A Name?

Great question, right? (It is. The answer is yes.)

In my experience, people (and characters) either live up to or live down their name. Examples:

Mother TERESA = harvester. What did she do? She harvested people for the Kingdom of God through her kindness and all around good nature.

Mr. DARCY (Pride and Prejudice) = dark one. And who was he? The tall, brooding one.

Get the gist? Good, let’s move on.

Your character’s name is just as important as — if not more important than — their quirks, dialogue, and action. A character’s name is our very first introduction to who they really are. Before your character ever says a word, we get to know their name. A name reflects a promise of what is to come. Ever seen an action hero named Hubert? There’s a good reason for that. Hubert just doesn’t fit an action hero, and obviously writers recognize that.

“How do I know what the right name is for my character?”

Well, my friends, that’s a tricky one.

Generally, the answer is “When you know, you know”, but I realize that may not suffice here. So let me explain.

I keep a notebook specifically for “Name Searches”. When I need a new character, out comes the notebook and the baby names book. (Don’t worry writers, people will always freak out that you have a baby names book. They are to be ignored. One day, when they need a name, they won’t have anything to guide them.)

Anywho… 

I write a list of names that I like either for the meaning or the sound of them. Anything that stands out. Right now I’m just gathering ideas. I write all of them — and their definitions — in the notebook. List form, it’s easier to read.

After I’ve done this, I star the ones that REALLY stand out. The ones that just fit the character. And it will. The name you pick will fit your character, because you already subconsciously know what this character is going to be like. From these ones, I choose the first one to grab me by the hand and take me on a journey with the character, the one that says “Hi there, my name is…”

Having said all that, there are other days when I just know what the character’s name is. In a recent novel I wrote, I searched for three days to find the perfect name for one of the main characters, while the other main character stepped right up and announced, “Hi, my name is Brooke.”

So, really, when people say “when you know, you know”, they’re being honest. Sometimes you do just know. For those of us who don’t, there are baby names.

A lot rides on what you name your character, so be careful how you go about it. Don’t just flippantly toss a name on them. Give it the time and consideration they deserve. There’s nothing better than knowing that your character is going to have a long and memorable career, and you spent the time to really get to know them. Including giving them the right name.

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Tune in next week for part 2 of Character Month

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Did you like what you read today? Do you have questions, comments, or cat-killing curiosity about something? If so, please either comment on this post or visit the Contact page and drop me a note!

It was good to have you as a visitor today! Please drop by again, or become family by following the Write Knowledge. Thank You.