So, what do you really need to know in order to write a good character? There’s the basics –
- Hair color
- Eye color
Then there’s getting down to the nitty gritty. I just picked up Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do by Meredith Maran and I’ve been enjoying the entries on the various authors tremendously. (I admit I’ve been skipping around instead of reading straight through.) Terry McMillan has an interesting way of creating characters. Years ago she picked up a job application for McDonald’s and fills it out for every single character in her books. She goes further though. “I create a five-page profile for every one of my characters so I know everything about them: what size shoes they wear, if their hair is dyed, if they bounce checks, have allergies, what they hate about themselves, what they wish they could change, if they pay their bills on time.”
Now, maybe this isn’t completely necessary but I can sure see the benefit. I’ve always been something of a “method” writer, getting inside the character and writing from the inside out. I need to know whether my character would really do the things that I’m writing for them. Will it ring true for the reader? I figure if I know my character inside out, I can put them in a situation and I will know what they will do, how they think and how they will react.
I found a great job application out of Alaska at http://www.jobs.state.ak.us/forms/genapp.pdf It asks the generic questions but in a way that gives you a broad idea of your character and lets you infer some interesting things. For instance, if someone is willing, or even prefers, to work the graveyard shift – why? Hmmm. Who would your character contact for references? How about in an emergency?
4,000 Questions for Getting to Know Anyone and Everyone by Barbara Ann Kipfer offers some very specific questions that you could ask your character. I think it’s a great book for a writer to have, but I don’t think I could possibly answer each one for all of my characters. She does break it down into some good categories. Some of these questions are hers and some are mine, but more are hers than mine.
Childhood & School
- Where did you grow up?
- Where did you go to school?
- What is your saddest memory? (And a bow to Humans of New York)
- Do you have any siblings? Did you get along with them?
- In what organizations and extracurricular activities did you participate?
- Did you have any serious accidents or illnesses as a child?
Family & Friends
- Did you have any pets as a child?
- As a child, were you closer to your mother or your father?
- What is your ancestry and ethnic background?
- What was your parents’ relationship like?
- Did you like school?
- Did you have a favorite teacher or subject?
Fun & Sport
- What are you currently reading?
- Do you participate in any organized activity?
- What do you do for fun?
- What do you think is funny?
- What sports do you like to watch?
- Do you dance?
- Do you get up on the weekend or sleep in?
- Where do you eat dinner?
- Is your house neat and/or clean, or is it messy and/or dirty?
- What are your vices?
- Are you careful or careless with money?
- Which pant leg do you put on first?
Love & Sex
- Do you have a significant other?
- Do you believe in love at first sight?
- Do you believe in marriage?
- What sexual position do you favor?
- Who was your first love?
- Tell me about your first kiss?
- Are you a pessimist, an optimist or a realist?
- Do you like or dislike change?
- What are five things you are grateful for?
- What worries you the most?
- Do you have goals for your future?
- What is “success” to you?
- What political party, if any, do you align yourself with?
- Are you pro-choice or pro-life? Why?
- Do you believe in the death penalty?
- Do you think we should have national healthcare?
- What do you think of marriage equality?
- What does the term “feminism” mean to you?
- Were you brought up in a religious tradition?
- Do you identify with a particular religion now?
- Do you believe in ghosts?
- What does “evil” mean?
- Why do you think bad things happen to good people?
- Do you believe in destiny or choice?
- What was your first real job?
- What do you do for a living?
- Do you like what you do?
- Do you think you’re a hard worker or lazy? What would your boss say?
- If you had to change careers, what would you do?
- How many hours do you work each week?
How do you build your characters?