A week before NaNoWriMo began, I realized I didn’t know my supporting characters. Whoops! I had spent so much time figuring out my plot based on my heroine’s goal that I had neglected all the other characters, of which there are many because I’m writing a horror and a body count is required! But I didn’t have time to do full character sketches for all of them. So I came up with ten questions to ask my characters that cuts to the essence of their very souls — in ten minutes or less. 🙂
1) Who are you? This question encompasses more than just basic facts like age, gender, profession, family status, etc. It gets inside each character’s head and finds out how they describe themselves versus how the world sees them, which may also be very different from how you the writer see them. This isn’t the truth of the character; this is their own bias towards themselves. Knowing a character’s personal bias is indispensable when figuring out how they would react to events in a story and what actions they would take. For example, the best villains see themselves as the hero of the story and act accordingly. Now what if your hero sees themselves as the villain? Or the loser? How does that inform their behaviour?
2) What do you want? Every character wants something, even if it’s an uninspired desire like being left alone to binge-watch Netflix. It’s important that each character has something they want that relates and/or conflicts with the plot, hero or other characters.
3) Why do you want it? An important follow up to the previous question. There must be a reason why your characters want what they want. Perhaps the Netflix watcher just broke up with his girlfriend and that’s why he would rather stay home than help his friends on their quest. So now you have conflict (a character who does not want to be on this quest with the hero) and relatability (a character we empathize with because we’ve all had relationships end).
4) How do you plan to get it? This is obviously a very important question for the hero because the whole story hinges on how the hero plans to achieve his goal. But secondary characters have plans too. Maybe Netflix watcher wants to get this quest over with asap so he can go home. Or maybe he realizes that helping the hero will impress his ex and gets a little carried away with the heroics. In short, this question helps the writer determine how the character interacts with the plot.
5) How do you handle crises? Stories are full of problems and setbacks and crises, so it’s essential to figure out how each character reacts to the troublesome twists and turns of their life (aka your plot). This question is especially useful if you have a group of characters in crisis together to make sure that they don’t all react the same.
6) What are you scared of? Knowing characters’ fears also informs how they would react in crises. Are they scared of what just happened or merely annoyed? If they’re not scared of the bad guys in the story, what are they scared of? Even the bravest character must fear something.
7) What is your weakness? This is not the same as a fear. I think of a character’s weakness as something they struggle to resist, something that will tempt them away from the story’s goal and/or create conflict with the hero. To use Netflix watcher as an example, his weakness could be his ex. If she calls and wants to talk, he’ll be tempted to abandon the hero and quest.
8) Who do you love? Even the most cantankerous character loves someone. Perhaps they only love themselves or their dog, but that’s something. Who they love can be their motivation or their weakness or their strength. It’s crucial to know which.
9) Who do you hate? Not all characters need to hate someone; the absence of hate is important to note as well. Which characters have enemies? Which are everybody’s friends? Or perhaps their hate is not directed to a person but towards a thing or idea or movement. What irks them and how does this inform their actions within the story?
10) Why are you in this story? This is perhaps the most important question of all! Does each character have a role? Here are some general examples: antagonist, voice of reason, comic relief, hero’s confident, troublemaker, love interest, smart one, victim, betrayer. Bottom line, there must be a reason for every supporting character to be in the story. Watch out for characters who play the same role; you can probably combine them into one.
I hope these questions help you develop your characters. I’m not quite done answering these questions myself, so if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to finish that and get started on NaNoWriMo. Good luck, everyone!
23 thoughts on “Top Ten Things Writers Should Ask Their Characters”
Very interesting piece. Thank you. There are some questions there that I don’t ask my characters.
Totally love this list. Gonna reblog for my readers, and of course steal for my elusive characters. You know the ones, they give me all kinds of trouble. Now they’ll get the third degree! LOL
Thanks, Jean! And I hope your characters succumbed to the quiz and gave you all the dirt you need. 🙂
Great list, Heather. Totally stealing this for my characters!
Awesome! Steal away! 🙂
All good questions and the having the answers should really help with the writing!
Thanks, Corina! So far, so good, until I get to a spot where I’m like, “I really need another character here.” 😉
All excellent questions to ask. Good luck with NaNo. I’m sure you’ll nail it.
Thanks, Sue! I appreciate the luck. I’m not so sure I’ll win NaNo, but I’ll write a lot and make excellent progress!
I am participating in my first NaNoWriMo and this article is so timely. I was just having a conversation with myself (in my head, of course) about my need to spend time with some of the other characters in my novel. Thanks
Glad this post found you at the right time! I’m participating in my first NaNoWriMo too. Wishing you fast-typing fingers and brilliant creative breakthroughs!
Love this! Some of my favorite characters have been (well-developed) supporting characters. Thanks for this post. 🙂
Thanks for the comment, Sarah! I enjoy a lively cast of supporting characters too. Lately I’ve been reading books with very few characters and wondering why so many writers create protagonists with hardly any friends. Perhaps so they don’t have to write as many character sketches? But I think great supporting characters are worth the work!
Good luck! I couldn’t ask the characters why they’re in the story. They’d be pissed and tell me they don’t care about my story, they just want to live their lives.
Ha! So instead of the direct interrogation approach, I suspect you have to spy on them like a P.I. and wait for them to reveal their dirty secrets and true selves. 🙂
I interview them sometimes, but for a lot of things I really do have to spy.
Ohhh I love this, thanks Heather. 😀
You’re very welcome!
Great questions! I’m already quizzing my characters 🙂
Awesome! That’s so nice to hear. Hope they tell you lots of juicy secrets!