3 Big Things You MUST Know About Your Characters
You have probably come across character questionnaires at some point in your writing journey. You know, the things that ask your character's age, birthday, ethnicity, hair color, etc. There are basic ones, and ones that dive a little bit deeper, but mostly they're a brief overview of who your character is. They're designed to account for every detail that fleshes out your character.
I hate them. Most of the time they really suck.
Don't get me wrong. I want to know about my characters. I want to know them intimately. I want to know every little detail. And I have to know these things in order to make them Real+Good characters that resonate with readers.
However, answering these types of basic questions doesn't bring them to life.
When we fall in love with characters, we don't fall in love with the fact that they're a 26-year-old redhead from North Dakota who works at an auto body shop. We don't fall in love with the fact that they wear lipstick religiously, or they keep their house messy. And in fact, most readers will forget these physical details anyway! They ARE imagining your world in their mind. You have some say over how it looks. But for them to get the best experience possible, they're going to design physical representations that work for them.
What we end up falling in love with is their mindsets, their emotions. We fall in love with their motivations, their flaws, their vulnerabilities, their strengths. We fall in love with emphasizing with them. We fall in love with them challenging our ways of thinking. We fall in love NOT with what makes them physically realistic, but with what's at the core of them internally, what makes them real overall. We fall in love with NOT what makes them realistic, but what makes them real. CLICK TO TWEET!
For example, in my novel, I don't know how old my protagonist is. I don't know how tall she is. I don't know what color hair she has. I have a rough idea of these things. But they're general guidelines, not concrete facts. The color of her hair is not important enough to warrant talking about it on the page. It doesn't progress the story forward, doesn't contribute to the plot, and doesn't allow the reader to see her more deeply. Why should I talk about it? Why should I know about it? There's no good reason, so I don't.
I DO know her goals, her desires, her motivations. I know her fears, her vulnerabilities. I know her voice, her thoughts. I know her secrets. I know her life story. I know her core self. This is what brings her to life. This is what's going to make readers remember her. This is what makes her a Real+Good Character.
So how do we do that? How do we render this authenticity on the page? How can we create fantastic, real characters again and again and again? A questionnaire is handy in this regard, functioning as a kind of checklist to get to know your characters better. But you've got to make sure you're using one that will get to these core truths about their internal selves.
To know your characters completely, you've got to know the emotional truths in their psyche, the relationships and history that influences them, and the way they choose to act in the world in order to be perceived a certain way.
We're going to go through these 3 BIG things you must know about your characters if you want them to be believable, diving into specific questions (too many to count!) you can ask them to reveal these truths.
Then, I have some AWESOME and unexpected resource questionnaires to really get your characters talking to you and revealing their true selves.
Are you ready?!
1 | Consider emotional truths in the psyche
WHAT DO THEY WANT + WHY DO THEY WANT IT?
Figure out your character's main goal. What is the one singular thing that they desire more than anything in the whole world? (Hint: This is probably the whole reason you're writing this story, the point. And it's probably highly-tied to your plot, or at least it should be).
Once you've figured out what this goal is, dig deeper and discover the why behind it. In order for your character to be true, they can't just want something arbitrary. It must have higher meaning, significance. Why is it that they want this thing so much?
WHAT DO THEY SUBCONSCIOUSLY WANT? WHAT DON'T THEY REALIZE IS IMPORTANT TO THEM? WHAT DO THEY NEED?
Sometimes, what your character thinks they want and what they actually want are two different things entirely. Perhaps they believe they want conquer the world, but really they just want to make their father proud. Perhaps they believe they want to fall in love with someone, but what they need is to love themselves.
This is somewhat related to part two of the above question—why do they want what they want?—but it also goes deeper than that. It accounts for the fact that our characters are attempting to be human, and humans don't always know what they truly want, why they truly want it, and if it's actually what they want at all. There's a lot of gray area here where things may or may not be true, may or may not be visible to your characters.
But you, as the writer, are privy to these things. Figure out if their are differences in the desires versus the needs, the perceived desires versus the actual desires. Dig deep into your character's subconscious and see what lives there.
WHAT SCARES THEM?
Fear is an essential human emotion. It's not one we like to discuss a lot, but it can be a huge contributing factor in making decisions (OR the avoidance of making decisions). It carries a lot of weight in what makes up a person.
For your characters, it may be relevant to know if they're scared of the dark or clowns or open spaces. But what you're really looking for are the BIG scary things: fear they're not good enough, fear they're a failure, fear they'll never find love, fear they'll be a bad parent, fear they're going to die. Again, dig deep into your character's psyche to see what really gives them nightmares.
If you mash fear+desire together, you have a plot. In order to have a story, your character must want something (goal/desire) and have obstacles that stand in their way of achieving that goal (fears). Figuring out what scares the shit out of your characters could be one big step closer to understanding the heart of your story.
WHAT DOES YOUR CHARACTER BELIEVE? HOW DO THEY PERCEIVE THE WORLD? HOW ARE THEY WRONG?
They say that a person generates their core beliefs about the world by the age of seven. These are conclusions we've reached at a young age based on the world around us. They may be right. They may be wrong. But they do exist.
What does your character believe? About themselves? About others? About the world? Do they believe in fairytales, or do they not? Do they believe hard work pays off? Do they believe marriages are doomed? Do they believe they'll live a happy life? Do they believe they'll be a failure? Are they religious? Are they pessimistic? Are they confident? Are they shy? Consider what your character would declare as their fundamental truths about the world. When they look out into the world, what do they see? And what do they believe the future will hold for them?
Your character will believe this to be completely and unconditionally true, but it might not be. Perhaps your character believes they'll never find love, but they will. Or perhaps your character believes the opposite, that she will find a happily ever after, and she's troubled when she can't. Make sure you know if they're right and if they're wrong.
These beliefs may be limiting beliefs for your character. If they believe they aren't good enough, they might not apply for their dream job because they don't think they'll get the position. If they believe they're a failure, they're going to have a higher frequency of negative internal thoughts. These beliefs will cause your character to think and act differently.
IF YOU HAD TO SUM UP WHAT YOUR CHARACTER'S VALUES INTO 3 THINGS, WHAT WOULD THEY BE?
Of course, your character must realistically represent a human, and humans have much more than 3 values. However, you aren't going to have time to explore all of these values in your story. You have to capture the essence of a person, of your character, quickly and accurately. To do this, you must know what is important to them.
What does your character hold in the highest regard? What principles does your character live by? Are they driven by ambition, family, love, money, fame, loyalty, religion, generosity, companionship, friendship, stories, dragons, the truth, ego, authenticity, adventure, challenges, creativity, meaning, purpose, revenge, justice, anger, guilt, happiness? Here is a list of 50 core personal values to get you started.
2 | Consider external influences
BLAST TO THE PAST: WHAT HAS HAPPENED IN YOUR CHARACTER'S PAST THAT INFLUENCES HOW THEY BEHAVE NOW?
Your character is not acting in a void. Your character is not existing in a vacuum. Things have happened in your character's past. And those things are influencing their present.
If your character watched her parents go through a bad divorce, she may feel differently about marriage than her friend whose parents have always been married. If your character lost a beloved animal six months ago, how does that change her behavior when she visits the animal shelter? If your character was just fired from her job, is she more likely or less likely to consider a career change right now? It all depends on the past experiences.
What experiences has your character had? Positive and negative? How are those influencing how your character is thinking and behaving in the present day?
Try mapping out a historical timeline of your character's life. Record all the significant milestones: birthdays, deaths, first kiss, sleepover camp, moving away from home, having a child, having an important conversation with a stranger. Then take a look at the 5 biggest, most life-changing and influencing moments they've ever had. If you had to sum up their life in 5 moments, what would those moments be? Why?
CONSIDER RELATIONSHIPS. WHO DO THEY TRUST? WHO DO THEY HATE? WHY?
You have probably heard the phrase, "Birds of a feather flock together." This is saying that like-minded people tend to be close to each other, but it also works in the other direction: people who are close to each other become like-minded. They say that your thoughts and behaviors are a compilation of the 5 people you hang out with most (so you better be hanging out with positive influences!). Whether they're helpful or harmful, they DO influence you more than you may realize.
Who are the 5 people that your character hangs out with? Who are your character's best friends? Are they close with their family, or their coworkers? Do they have an influential significant other? How do they shape your character's perspective on the world? How do they change your character's behavior? What are some common phrasings this group uses? What are some common activities this group does together?
It's also important to consider intimate relationships in general. Relationships are fundamental to human existence and they will exist in some form in your story. How are they impacting your story? What does your character's relationship with their mother look like? Who does your character trust the most? Who would your character call if they had a problem and needed advice? What does your character's relationship with their significant other look like? How does your character feel about these intimate relationships, about intimacy in general?
Pay attention to if the friend group and the intimate relationships your character has are positive or negative. Your character may like these people, but are they healthy relationships for your character? Are they necessary relationships? Is your character forcing something that isn't true? Is your character being forced into something that isn't true? Is your character happy with their relationships? If not, what's wrong? Can it be fixed? How?
And, of course, we've all had relationships that have turned sour. For some reason or another, we've all ran into people that we just do not get along with. Your character has too. Consider who your character hates. Who is on the "block" list on their phone, or on Facebook? Who would they get angered by seeing in public? Who do they secretly hope dies? Who do they despise unconditionally? Why do they feel this way? What happened to cause this relationship to turn negative? How does this negative experience shape who the are today?
3 | Consider how they behave + act in the world
HOW DO THEY BEHAVE?
Behavior is an interesting thing. It may be aligned with your character's beliefs, or it may appear to be completely misaligned with your character's beliefs. But this is the perception that your character gives off to the world. This is how other people perceive your character, because they don't have access to the innermost thoughts.
Your character may be extremely outgoing. Or maybe they only talk a lot because they're internally nervous. Perhaps your character has a nervous habit of biting their fingernails or tapping their foot. Perhaps your character always acts out of spontaneity, or carefully plans every move ahead of time. Perhaps your character plans their words before they say them. Perhaps your character is very action-heavy and is constantly going places and doing things. Or perhaps your character is very shy and locked inside their own head. Perhaps they stand tall or perhaps they slouch. Perhaps they speak quickly or slowly. Perhaps they wrinkle their eyebrows when they're making a decision. Perhaps they feel the need to be proper and ladylike all the time. Perhaps they feel the need to show a dominant masculinity. Perhaps they worry sooo much about what other people think, or perhaps they don't care at all.
How does your character behave in public? How do they look? How do they act? What is the vibe they give off to the world? How does the world view them? Is this aligned or in disagreement with how your character feels internally?
HOW DO THEY TALK?
Your character's voice is going to make them stand apart from all others. This is how they communicate. This is an external reflection of their thoughts.
What is your character's voice? How do they think? Consider speed, pitch, inflection. Consider vocabulary. What words are an inherent part of their lexicon? Do they speak lengthy sentences, or abruptly? What is their tone? What slang do they use, if any? What phrase could you hear and immediately know it was them?
*If you want more help with this, check out this post: WHAT GEORGE SAUNDERS CAN TEACH YOU ABOUT VOICE + 5 WAYS TO GET YOUR CHARACTERS TO TALK TO YOU
I recently heard an AMAZING tip by author Jerry Jenkins. He posed a writing prompt in one of his recent webinars that was intended to help writers figure out their own unique voice and style, but it can be asked of your characters with the same effect. The prompt is: Tell the story of the best, most interesting that's ever happened to you, to the most important person in your life. The way you tell this story to this person is your unique voice.
So ask this of your characters. Get them to tell their most important person the most important story. Then harness this way of speaking as the model for the rest of their words.
ELEVATOR PITCH. HOW DO THEY DESCRIBE THEMSELVES IN 30 SECONDS?
This tip is somewhat related to the above categories. It combines perception, beliefs, behavior, personal history, and voice. This seems tiny and perhaps insignificant, but it can be a biggie.
Imagine your character has to explain themselves, give a whole overview of themselves as a person in a limited amount of time. If this was for a job, it would be the elevator pitch that starts off the interview. If this was on a dating site, it would be the summary section. If your character was beginning a new relationship with someone, this would be the core facts that your character feels they need to share with this other person. This is the answer to the classic "Tell me about yourself" question.
This is a carefully crafted answer. Think of when you prepared for a job interview. I know when I'd interviewed in the past I made lists of my achievements, adjectives that summed up my personality, and I made sure to phrase it a way that was authentic and powerful. Think of when you meet someone new. I have a brief list of things that describe me when people I've never met ask me who I am. These are basic facts that are elemental to the self, but it's a carefully composed list, a hand-selected list of things you wish to express to someone.
Consider it this way. You wouldn't go up to a complete stranger and say, "Hi, my name is Rachel and I'm terrified of ____ and one time I did _____ which was super embarrassing and P.S. my flaws are ___ + ___ + ___." If you did, the person you were talking to would literally run the other direction.
Your elevator pitch consists of the things you wish to present to the world. You're presenting yourself in a positive light briefly so the other person can "get" you without having to go into a ton of details about your whole life story.
So think about what your character's answer would be. If you asked your character, "Tell me about yourself," what would they say? What attributes would they choose to highlight? What achievements would they bring up? What hobbies might they want to talk about? What basic facts to they feel they need to share with the other person? What positive things to they feel they need to convey in order for this person (who doesn't know them) to perceive them accurately?
Consider the answers your character might have for a variety of situations, because the answer WILL change depending on who your character is talking to:
- "Tell me about yourself" in a job interview
- An elevator pitch in a literal elevator
- Someone trying to pick them up at a bar
- Writing an online dating profile
- A distant relative they haven't talked to in years
- A new friend
- A new coworker
- Someone scary, creepy, repulsive
- Someone they're trying to impress
Additionally, sometimes these questions are phrased with a little more wiggle room. You might've had someone ask you, "So what's your life story?" which requires a little bit lengthier answer. This is asking for a brief background that goes beyond hobbies and interests and attributes, but is looking for history. If you or your character was asked this, you wouldn't go into the traumatic events that may be extremely influential, but you would have some events to pull from and mention. Or, perhaps these traumatic events are concealed in a way while still being revealed.
For example: Perhaps your character was orphaned when they were very young. Instead of saying, "My parents died and I lived in foster care for years," they might say, "I grew up in a variety of places." Perhaps your character really sucked at their first career attempt in sales and had a major identity crisis in figuring out what they wanted to do. Instead of saying, "I can't find a job and I'm scared I'll suck at everything," they might say, "I'm exploring various career paths and keeping my options open."
We tend to hide these core truths behind nice euphemisms with people we don't know. We are not vulnerable. We do not confess all from the get-go. So, seeing what your character uses to hide behind is a fascinating look into their psyche, their history, their perception, and their voice.
The Master List of Resources
PRO-TIP: USE THIS AS A BUFFET TO GUIDE YOU.
I've collected SO MANY questions that may be helpful for your getting to know your characters. They are listed below.
But, caution: DO NOT feel the need to answer all these questions! There's a bajillion of them listed. And that's a lot. It would take you quite a long time to answer them all. You could write a whole novel of your character's answers!
PLEASE pick and choose the questions that are resonating most strongly for you and your character right now. You can always come back and explore the rest if you hit a hard place.
This is a buffet, not a required checklist. You can take a little sampling of everything, but you don't have to eat it all.
USE "THE REAL+GOOD WRITER'S DNA" ON YOUR CHARACTERS.
Essentially, you're trying to figure out your character's DNA or core being, which is exactly what we do in The Real+Good Writer's DNA. Now, not all of it will be relevant to your characters since your character is not a writer like you, but there are some essential identity questions you can ask of them. Here's a sample. You'll notice a few crossovers from what we talked about already:
- What excites you?
- What makes you feel vulnerable? How are you avoiding feeling vulnerable?
- What motivates you?
- What is true about today that would make your kid self cry?
- What makes you forget how to human (i.e. shit + eat + sleep)? Why?
- What in your life are you avoiding? Why are you avoiding it?
- What's your biggest secret? Why is it a secret?
- What are you willing to do no matter what?
- What makes you squirm? What makes you uncomfortable?
- Where do you feel most at ease? Where is "home"? Why?
- What do you love / hate / fear / desire / cry about / get frustrated about?
- What do you think about often?
INTERVIEW THEM YOURSELF, OR HAVE THEM INTERVIEW EACH OTHER. SPECIFICALLY WITH THESE AMAZING QUESTIONS.
Once upon a time people investigated whether or not intimacy could be accelerated. In a study by Arthur Aron, psychologists put two strangers in a room together and told them to ask and answer 36 questions to get to know each other. The result? Six months later, two participants were married. And when repeated, there are surprising effects.
These questions don't merely dance along the surface-level of getting to know someone. They're not what you would expect on a first date - or even a third date, for that matter. They dive deeply into what it truly means to be the unique human that you are. They require a confession of vulnerable truths. And they require a conversation between two separate individuals.
Here are a few of my favorite questions:
- Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest (and why)?
- What would constitute a "perfect" day for you?
- Take four minutes and tell your life story in as much detail as possible.
- What is your most terrible memory?
- When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
- Of all the people in your family, who's death would you find the most disturbing? Why?
I hope you can see just by the nature of these questions how intimate you can get with your characters simply by asking the questions and listening for the answers.
But what's fantastic about these questions is that they are designed with an audience in mind. They are designed to generate an intimacy not just with the self, but with another person. If you have two characters that you need to learn about, have them answer these questions to each other. This can be a fantastic resource if they're in a romantic relationship, and if they're not.
How would your character's answers change if she spoke her answers to her husband, versus her sister, versus her boss?
Some of these questions are asking for a dialogue rather than a monologue, but all of them can be used in this way. Some of my favorite questions like this:
- Share a personal problem and ask your partner's advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you've chosen.
- If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
- Make three true "we" statements. For instance, "We are both in this room feeling..."
- Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
Greatest character planner ever? I think so! This has become THE go-to resource for me when I need to know more about your characters. I hope you find it as useful as I do!
MARCEL PROUST'S CHARACTER QUESTIONNAIRE
Once upon a time author Marcel Proust wrote a series of questions designed to get to know the self and friends better. What happened was people loved it and use the same questions all the time. And then what happened was that writers realized they could steal the questions and not ask themselves, but ask their characters what their answers were. And then some magic happened.
Proust's questions are curious. They're open-ended and vague and, honestly, quite simple. But EVERYONE will have an answer to them. The answers can be widely diverse, but there will be an answer, no matter who is doing the answering.
- What is your idea of perfect happiness?
- What is your greatest fear?
- What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
- What is the trait you most deplore in others?
- Which living person do you most admire?
- What is your greatest extravagance?
- What is your current state of mind?
- What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
- On what occasion do you lie?
- What do you most dislike about your appearance?
- Which living person do you most despise?
- What is the quality you most like in a man?
- What is the quality you most like in a woman?
- Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
- What or who is the greatest love of your life?
- When and where were you happiest?
- Which talent would you most like to have?
- If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
- What do you consider your greatest achievement?
- If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
- Where would you most like to live?
- What is your most treasured possession?
- What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
- What is your favorite occupation?
- What is your most marked characteristic?
- What do you most value in your friends?
- Who are your favorite writers?
- Who is your hero of fiction?
- Which historical figure do you most identify with?
- Who are your heroes in real life?
- What are your favorite names?
- What is it that you most dislike?
- What is your greatest regret?
- How would you like to die?
- What is your motto?
GOTHAM WRITERS UNCONVENTIONAL CHARACTER QUESTIONS
Gotham Writers have a WONDERFUL toolbox full of writerly goodies, and in it they have a brief, but essential, list of questions for your characters. I especially love their 7 unconventional questions listed below. What's fascinating about these is that they consider things that happen in everyday life—natural things, boring things—but they can reveal SO MUCH about a character.
What also makes these questions so wonderful is that they are grounded in concreteness. While most of the other questions ask about abstract concepts like beliefs and perception, these questions focus on objects, appearances, memories. They may not be the kind of questions you think you should ask your characters, but I think you'll be pleasantly surprised at the results their answers bring.
And yes, you have 150 million percent permission to psychoanalyze the shit out of your character's answers.
- What is in your characters refrigerator right now? On her bedroom floor? On her nightstand? In her garbage can?
- Look at your character's feet. Describe what you see there. Does he wear dress shoes, gym shoes, or none at all? Is he in socks that are ratty and full of holes? Or is he wearing a pair of blue and gold slippers knitted by his grandmother?
- When your character thinks of her childhood kitchen, what smell does she associate with it? Sauerkraut? Oatmeal cookies? Paint? Why is that smell so resonant for her?
- Your character is doing intense spring cleaning. What is easy for her to throw out? What is difficult for her to part with? Why?
- Its Saturday at noon. What is your character doing? Give details. If hes eating breakfast, what exactly does he eat? If shes stretching out in her backyard to sun, what kind of blanket or towel does she lie on?
- What is one strong memory that has stuck with your character from childhood? Why is it so powerful and lasting?
- Your character is getting ready for a night out. Where is she going? What does she wear? Who will she be with?
LET THEM VENT IN A STREAM-OF-CONSCIOUSNESS
When all else fails, just let your character talk and be willing to listen. Ask your character to tell you a story. Ask them to talk about something as boring as water. Ask them to be happy. Ask them to complain. Ask them to tell you something. And just let them go. Do not censor. Do not judge. You can always revise this nonsense later (or refuse to include it in your final product at all). The goal of this exercise is to get your character talking so you can understand who they are, what they think, and what they're doing in this world.
YOUR CHARACTERS = THEIR PSYCHE + THEIR INFLUENCES + THEIR ACTIONS
If you truly want to write Real+Good Characters that are authentic and believable, you have to get to their core selves. You have to know how they think, how they feel, what motivates them, what terrifies them. You have to know their history, their friends, their influences. You have to know how they behave, how they want to behave, how they describe themselves. You have to know them intimately.
I have a worksheet for you that walks you through everything we just talked about, but it's only available for a limited time! I'm working on expanding it into a premium-level workbook that dives even deeper. Get your copy now by clicking the button below while it's free!
Forget the silly surface-level details that ask about physicality and boring statistical facts. Dive deep into your character's DNA. Don't try to make them human by making them physical, allow them to be human by making them emotionally deep.
You may not know everything about your character when you start your story, and so some pieces may seem irrelevant. That is okay. You may skip things and return to them later.
If you're in the middle of your story and you get stuck, return to some questions and try to learn more about your character. Perhaps you didn't dive deep enough into a certain topic and you need to explore it further.
If you're revising your story, make sure you pay attention to this too. You can track your character's consistency and alignment with their core being you've developed here.
What do you do to get to know your characters better? Are there a specific set of questions you like to ask them? How do you identify their core self?