Sunday, 4 July 2010

NAILING YOUR CHARACTER

The other day, I came across a list of questions an author should ask his character, in order fully to understand that character. I am not going to send you to it because I was unimpressed. The questions were facetious and the fact that they were deliberately so didn't make them more pointful. Why would I want or need to know whether my character prefers milk or dark chocolate? This tells me sod all. (That wasn't one of the questions, but you get my drift.) The writer was trying to make the point that we need to know our characters inside out - true enough, but the point would have been made much better if the reason for needing to know was properly understood and then the questions were designed to reflect this reason:
that it is the character who drives the story and therefore that without knowing our characters we can't control the story.
I do think that interviewing our characters is a good idea but the questions should be ones which will genuinely help us with the story. So, I thought I'd try to come up with my serious, non-facetious list. If you want to understand the relevant things about your MC and simultaneously grasp your plot by the short and curlies, ask of your MC:
What is your worst fear? And your second worst? (Likely to be part of the conflict and tension.)

What would you most like people to know about you? (Make sure it's obvious, then.)
What would you most like to hide? (Every hero has a flaw.)
What would you most like to change about your life? (Could be part of the conflict and motivation; could be sub-plot.)

Why should we care about you? (Because if we don't, we won't read on.)

What were you doing before this story started? (This informs your back-story.)
Do people understand you? If not, what do they get wrong? (Makes your character more real because it informs interaction with other characters.)
If I met you for the first time, would I immediately know what you were like or would it take a while to get to know you? (As above.)

What sort of people like you? Do adults like you? Do boys like you? Do girls like you? Why? Or why not? (Helps place your character within the real world instead of just on the page. It may also inspire some ideas for painting your character richly but subtly.)
Are you happy on your own? (As above.)
What are you going to achieve in my story? (Crucial for plot, since character drives action.)

What trivial but annoying habit do you have? (Makes character more real. Character can show this habit when angry / sad / stressed - helps you show without telling emotion too much.))

What trivial but annoying habits do you dislike in other people? (As above.)

What four (or three or five) adjectives best sum you up? (Helps you remember traits to paint most strongly.)
Are you going to die in this story?** Should you? (Informs plot and interacts with reader's engagement.)
(** Edited to add: on second thoughts, and after a v useful comment by Miriam Drori, I have changed my mind about this. It's certainly not necessary for the writer to know if the character is going to die - I often don't know things like that. But asking whether the character should die is useful, as Miriam says. That will add to the tension and suspense, and get you thinking about that plot aspect. Of course, if this book isn't one where death is going to be at all relevant or appropriate, you'd omit this question.)

When you can answer all these questions, you know your character and you know your story. Your story will be infinitely easier to write and immeasurably more human.

Or canine, if your character is a dog.

And now, a challenge for you: do you have an even better question to add to that list? If I think it's a superlatively brilliant question, I may add it to the list when I come to that bit in Write to be Published - but hurry, because I'm writing it NOW. You'll get your name in the acknowledgements but you'll get nae dosh.

29 comments:

liz fenwick said...

Great post and hits the nail on the head with what i have been working on in wrestling rough draft into something usable.

Not for your list but one that has helped me dig a bit deeper is - what is your character's first memory? It is not my question one for s seminar I was on) but It is one that has helped me look at little further back into my characters because it made me look at my own and how much they say about me as a person.

Miriam Drori said...

I put your questions to myself and came to the conclusion that what I try the most to hide is also what I would most like people to know about me!

Not sure the character would know whether he/she is going to die, but "Should you die?" like all the others, is a great question.

Karen Collum said...

Thank you so much for this awesome list. I too have seen those interminably long and surface-scratching lists and wondered how on earth answering them would help me understand my characters better. Your list, however, is awesome. In fact, I think I'm going to go and interview some characters right now.

Charlotte said...

Brilliant list, Nicola! I'm going to sit down with my MC and ask her all these questions. Until this moment I've never found these kinds of character lists of much use, but this is really something productive.

Mary said...

Finally a list that makes sense to me.
Thanks so much.

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks, all - I do think my list couold be improved, though. It was a bit "off the top of my head" so I welcome any suggestions.

Nicola Morgan said...

Miriam - ah, yes, you're right that the character wouldn't know whether he/she was going to die! But I suppose that since actually YOU are going to answer the question on behalf of your character, you'd know. I also think that, on second thoughts, it's not necessary for the author to know if the character is going to die, but you're right that "should you die?" is a good question. Thanks for making me think again!

Keren David said...

Great list. I'd add two:

What are your hopes (if any) for the future?

How do you get on with your parents?

Jesse Owen said...

I've seen lists like this on websites and books but none as good (or as useful) as this list.

Ebony McKenna. said...

Fabbo post - I hate those questions where it's all about what food they love or their fave brand of snack food. This does not indicate personality, merely brand awareness :-)

Here's a question for your character: What are your beliefs? And what events in your life have shaped those beliefs?

My critique group has some very clued-up members who have created 'conflict grids' to help a writer nail where each character is coming from, and why everyone can't just get along right from the start.

F'rinstance - the boy may believe that girls are mean and gossipy based on prior events in his life where a previous girlfriend blabbed about him and made fun of him. And his oldest sister had a fight and posted horrible things about him on the internet. (ie, two strikes and he's forming a reasonable belief that girls can't be trusted).

The girl on the other hand, can't keep a secret if her life depended on it. She can't have a thought without telling whoever is closest too her. So, there's no way the boy will trust her with anything!
(hey, this is quite good! I like where this is going, LOL!)

There is no plot here at all, but that doesn't matter at this stage. What's happening is two people from seemingly polar opposites are going to have to trust each other. Their personalities will mean they eventually do the worst thing and betray that trust. There's the black moment taken care of.

Now, how are they going to recover from that to get their happy ending?

(sorry for writing an essay)

catdownunder said...

Do people understand you? No? Then "Why do they get it wrong?"
can be just as important as "What do they get wrong?" - perhaps even more.
A good writer should be able to challenge stereotypes in a believable way.

HelenMHunt said...

How about, what recurring dreams do you have? Or what do you worry about when you wake up at three in the morning? This hopefully tells you a bit about your character's subconscious/unconscious thoughts and what creeps up on them when they're not looking.

MrsMusic said...

For me, questions like these only give me part of the picture; I also need ways of approaching my characters in a less analytical, more "explorational" way. Somewhere I stumbled over these, which help me tremendously to get in touch with a character I don't know very well yet:
- Describe your character walking on a busy main street and passing you by accident. How does s/he walk? Fast, hesitantly, dreamy? Where does s/he look? Does s/he see you? Is s/he talking to him/herself, windowshopping...?
- Name the five favorite places of the character, or places where s/he can often be met.
- What is s/he doing there?
And, to get to the relationships of the character with others:
- Who are the persons who influenced the character most? Who are the ones s/he loves most?
And then I write I little scene showing this influence/love/relationship. For me the old "show don't tell" is true not only in the novel itself, but also in the character descriptions - a scene tells me more than answers to thousands of questions.

behlerblog said...

Great analysis, Nicola. Too many times I read manuscripts and feel the main characters are one dimensional because the author doesn't really know them.

You know how you never know someone until you travel with them? In the last seminar I gave, I suggested that writers go camping with their characters. The suggestion was tongue-in-cheek, mind you, but it did instigate a lively discussion and got them to thinking more deeply about turning their characters into real people.

To wit, my question would be: How would you react if we were stranded in the middle of the forest with a broken radiator and no satellite phone?

And lastly; would you pitch the tent, or make me do it?

womagwriter said...

Good post - the point of all these 'question your character' lists is to get to know your character, but what you need to know about them will perhaps vary depending on what you are writing. A chick-lit writer will need to know her character's taste in shoes, whereas an angst-laden mid-life crisis novel may not need to know that little gem, but would need to know the answer to my additional question, which is:

What is your greatest regret?

Stroppy Author said...

These are great questions :-)

An exercise I've set writing students in the past is to collect some quizzes from magazines (especially teen magazines, for a children's book) and complete them as if you were your character. It tends to highlight areas you hadn't thought about and gives a rudimentary assessment of your character.

Nicola Morgan said...

womagwriter - very good point. Yes, it does depend on genre and you need to adapt. However, I chose my questions to fit what I believe would be the case for all books, or almost all. I agree, though, that you then need to add some of your own.

Keren - good questions. "What are your hopes (if any) for the future?" would work for any book and "How do you get on with your parents?" is certainly important for YA/children's, where rel'ship with parents is crucial.

Ebony - also v interesting stuff. Quite specific. I'd agree that asking these questions could help, once you've nailed the main aspects.

Helen - "what do you worry about when you wake up at 3 in the morning?" - I agree but it's probs not different from "what is your greatest fear?" You could use either, equally.

MrsMusic - good stuff.

Others - sorry, not time to come to each individually. But I feel that some of those questions are getting too surfacey again - I want the questions which really deeply nail what the central conflicts are going to be. They are all good questions if they are the questions you feel like asking, though! (She says, sloping off weakly...)

Thanks for all your contributions.

Linda said...

I ask my characters what one item (not pet!) they would take with them if their home were burning down. It tells me about their backstory, their priorities, and their attitude to the world around them. Some might even say they wouldn't bother to take anything.

Dan Holloway said...

Funnily enough, when I'm interveiewing creatives, "Converse or Louboutin?" tells me pretty much all I need to know about them as a person.

One thing you should probably mention, although it doesn't affect the questions, is that it makes a difference whether narration is first or third person. Especially with questions like "What do you most want people to know about you?" If you answer that with the simple fact ("that I'm self-confident", say) then - especially if you write first person, it would be very easy to slide into "tell". On the other hand, writing 3rd person you will have no choice but got to the more imprtant "how does this manifest itself?" (that power handbag; the sharp bob; the fact the chin is always pointed slightly too far up at the sky).

Personally I don't like to interview my characters. I just did an interview about how I do things (http://www.phillipafioretti.com.au/?p=2654) and one of the things that came up was that the key to understanding a character is NOT general questions - it's their reaction to very specific circumstances - I really don't think it "works" (not for me, anyway, then again as you said in your last post...) when we say "my character is x, y & z now, how would they react in these circumstances?" Instead we have to observe (I ALWAYS start with an image of a character - I'll follow them around in my head and if I haven't wandered off to make coffee after 5 minutes I decide they might be interesting to write about) what the character does, by watching them in certain situations. We may or may not then extrapolate characteristics (I don't - I even wrote a paper on why I don't [it's a theme of Songs - in the context of post-communist Europe - that you can't]), but it HAS to start with the specific observation. Our characters, like us, are not made up of easy to determine motivations that manifest in actions. They, like us, are made up of complex interconnected actions and non-actions and thoughts and words that sometimes offer clues to what lies beneath - I have a feeling (just personal, and my own writing's both over-complicated and really not very good so I'm almost certainly wrong) our characters will be richer and more layered if we approach them this way round.

Keren David said...

I think 'How do (or did) you get on with your parents?' works beyond YA/childrens books - it may not be so obviously part of the plot, but it tells you an awful lot about someone's childhood and approach to the world - psychodynamic psychotherapists would agree!

Harry Markov said...

What do you crave? What do you want badly in my story? And what are you ready to do and sacrifice in order to get it? Do you have limitations as far as your ambitions go?

---

Also I try to be the character. Call it character possession. I just play the music that is right for a scene in the project and then I imagine I was the character facing the situation.

Works, if you do know your character or know what you want to accomplish.

Tim said...

Great post Nicola. I'd like to know whether the character is tolerant or intolerant, and whether cynical or sentimental.

Monica said...

These type of lists stem from The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. He thought 3-dimensional characters came from what he called "the bone structure" or the physiology, sociology, and psychology of a character. The bone structure built the "why" of a character. Good stuff. Worth reading.

Dayspring said...

I think it helps to write a few hundred words describing your character's typical day - how and when they wake up, what they eat, whether they're bored or enthusiastic facing the day, what their high and low points are.

I also do what Stephenie Meyer does and write a scene separately from both characters' points of view so you know clearly what their motivations are for dialogue, etc.

Dayspring said...

Oh, and if I'm stuck while imagining a scene, I draw it. It gives me time to think and will often kickstart the process of seeing more clearly what I need to show.

Captain Black said...

I don't have any further questions to add to your list, but I am very pleased about a certain aspect to those questions. It's also an aspect I find important to many writing 'rules', an aspect that you are one of the few practitioners to utilise. It's an aspect that adds weight, confidence and believability to a rule or guideline.

What am I talking about? Justification. All too often we hear rules (e.g. never start a chapter with dialogue) with absolutely no reasoning behind it. Your blog is refreshingly different. I may actually trust and believe your advice ;o)

Elizabeth West said...

Thanks for a great list. I like the way these questions invite the creative process, and they're very much like having a conversation with the character.

I've used worksheets before that are like filling out government forms --height, weight, grandparents, etc-- and they're rather cold and boring. Right now, I'm working on a novel protagonist with whom I can't seem to connect. I'm going to try and ask him these questions.

Lee Wind said...

Excellent starting point - I have my own list of questions I keep adding to, and one thing I do is I imagine the questions are being asked by a "therapist" type person of my character, and then I look for where they would lie to this authority figure, and I write down both the lie and the truth they'd rather not say...

Namaste and thanks for sharing,
Lee

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks for all your comments and your other ideas, things you use to nail your character. Interesting to see the variety!

Captain Black - thank you for your comment. I hadn't consciously set out to do that but I suppose it's the way my mind works: I won't ever believe anything anyone says unless there's a justification, a reason for it. So, I guess that affects me when I'm trying to tell someone something. Now that you've pointed it out, I'm going to be aware of it. I am very glad that I am now in your circle of trust!

Dan - you make some very good points. In a way, I think what you're doing is a bottom-up approach, whereas i suppose what I was showing was a top-down approach. I can see both ways working equally well. To be honest, I have never done the interviewing thing, but I know it's useful for some. Nor have i done your approach. I think I dive haphazardly into the middle.

As you say, it's what works for you. The shoe question doesn't work for me, for the reason linked to what you actually say elsewhere: that although we are indeed formed of small actions which inter-connect, rather than over-arching adjectives, actually nothing can or should be surmised from what someone's answer to an either or question which isn't in context. (That's my view. Maybe it's because I don't relate to psychanalysis.)

But I completely agree that it's about what works for each of us. As I said in a recent post, it's not about rules of how we write but the resulting words on the page.