On Writing and Developing Characters

It’s taken me a little while to write this post today. Yesterday’s post was much more intense and (potentially) controversial than usual, and I wasn’t sure how to follow it up. I don’t want to keep talking politics (I’ve said my piece) but I didn’t feel right going into a funny anecdote about my children, either.

So I’ve decided to find some middle ground and talk about writing. Specifically, about the process I’m going through at the moment: Developing my characters.

I talked a bit about my need to revisit my character development a couple of weeks ago, and then touched on some reasons I think it’s important to create fully developed characters at some point during the writing process, whether it’s before you start writing, in the middle of a project (like I’m doing now) or after you’ve finished your first draft. And that’s what I’ve been working on over the last week and a half.

One of the ways to get to know your characters a bit better is to do a ‘Character Interview’. This is where you sit your character down and ask them a whole range of questions — you know, like you do on a first date.

(Disclaimer: It’s a long time since I’ve been on a first date.)

For the non-writer’s in the audience, yes this sounds crazy. Yes, the characters aren’t really real. But trust me, it works.

I’ve had some success with character interviews in the past, but had lost the interview template I used. So I asked around, and was pointed to this awesome character questionnaire. I read it and was hooked.

The quiz has 50 questions in total, although some are really follow-on questions rather than stand-alone ones. I’ve been enjoying putting my characters through their paces on this one, and my husband and I have also used it to get to know some of our RPG characters better.

Click through. Read it. Try it. Let me know what you think.

And in the spirit of fun, I thought I’d share a few of the answers so far. These are answers from a mix of different characters in the urban fantasy novel I’m working on (four different characters are represented here). Hopefully you’ll find some of the answers as amusing and/or interesting as I do.

  1. If you could change anything about yourself…
    • It would be my tusks. They’re… look, it’s not that they’re small. But it never hurts to have bigger ones, right?
  2. What’s your favourite food?
    • My father used to cook me a meal called grautr. It was like… salted porridge with smoked herring. I didn’t like it. Now, it’s the only thing in the world I want to eat. I cooked it for my boyfriend once. He didn’t eat it.
  3. What’s your favourite drink?
    • There’s this Japanese wine that tastes like distilled sunligh– I mean, whiskey. Yeah. Straight up.
  4. Do you have any hobbies?
    • [character 1] Murder, mayhem and motorbikes.
    • [character 2] Don’t laugh, but I collect rocks. I told you not to laugh.
  5. Have you been honest with these questions?
    • Only the unimportant ones.

Do you interview your characters? Do you have a particular set of questions you like to use?

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17 Comments

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17 responses to “On Writing and Developing Characters

  1. Much of my prose has been short stories, so I have not needed detailed backgrounds for most of the characters.

    I have asked pointed questions of some of them in moments of stress: nothing as through (or polite) as that questionnaire though.

    It seems an interesting approach for deeper characters, so I might give it a try for the novel I am outlining at the moment to see what happens.

    • For myself, I need to have a bit of an idea of a character’s background and personality before going into this quiz, but I find it really helpful. Plus, of course, I can print out the ansers and put them on file so if I’m struggling with a character I can refer back to their answers later and get back under their skin, as it where. I look forward to hearing how this works for you. 🙂

  2. A similar exercise is to throw two or three of these characters into a room and have them make some mundane decision, e.g. what movie do we want to see, what are we going to make for dinner, who should we invite to the party? It helps develop voice, internal motivations, and a bit of pre-existing inter-character conflict.

    • I’ve heard of this type of method before, but have to admit to never having tried it. I may give it a bit of a go around as well.

      Do you use it? What kind of success have you had from it?

  3. Caitlin

    This sounds like a great tool! I’ll definitely be using this. Thanks for sharing.

    (PS Where do you RP? Do you use online forums? I miss RPing but I can’t seem to find any good boards to join.)

    • Hi Caitlin, welcome to the blog. 🙂 I hope you enjoy the quiz as much as I am!

      As for RP, I’m very fortunate to have a husband who loves RP as much as I do, and we do a lot of gaming between ourselves and with a few friends IRL. I haven’t played online in years — not since the done thing was MUSHes and MUDs. (Oh, how I miss those days…) But my husband plays forum games on rpol.net and tells me it’s a very friendly community of people. If you haven’t checked it out, maybe give that a try. 🙂 Good luck!

  4. You know, while I do some character development, I’ve never done a character interview. I’ve always found the idea a bit… I don’t know… silly I guess. Particularly for characters in non-contemporary settings. Some of those questions, though are good. Others would be nonsensical in the right setting. (For instance, the honest answer of my current protagonist to “Do you have any hobbies?” would have to be “What’s a hobby?”, delivered without any irony or humor at all. A hobby is not a thing that exists in her world.)

    • I think one of the things I like about it is that even those nonsensical questions can reveal a lot about the character. For example, your character who doesn’t know what a hobby is could answer in a variety of ways. eg:

      “Do you have a hobby?”
      “What’s a hobby?”

      “Do you have a hobby?”
      “What are you talking about, impudent boy?”

      “Do you have a hobby?”
      “I don’t even have a front door!”

      “Do you have a hobby?”
      “F— off.”

      “Do you have a hobby?”
      “This hobby that you speak of… is it very powerful?”

      And so on and so forth. Even though the answers are essentially all the same (ie. no), the way the character answers reveals something of their nature.

  5. I’ve never interviewed any of my characters (you might have figured that 🙂 ), but I have been thinking about having one of them interview another. After all, one character is a reporter and another is a phenomenon, so it makes sense.

    It won’t be fifty questions, though. That’s a lot.

    I really like Dan’s idea, though. I like the random element. It reminds me of this: http://u-town.com/collins/?p=2646

    BTW, I love the part about the tusks. 🙂

    • *grin* Glad you like the tusks. It’s one of my favourite quotes. 🙂

      Yeah, I might give Dan’s idea a go as well. And I like the idea of your characters interviewing each other. Would definitely be interesting. 🙂

  6. These characters sound clever and interesting. I like the wine answer the best, of course. 🙂

  7. Just bookmarked this page!

  8. Scott Zachary

    Working with my characters is like herding cats. And, like cats, they never go away–just lurk under dressers and crouch in high bookshelves staring at me until one day they decide they want to interact, and a new story is born.

    I’ve never been able to get all the way through a “character interview” without feeling a bit foolish, but it can be a good exercise. Interviewed, or not, my characters definitely do become real for me–as real as “real” people and sometimes more so. Often, while I’m writing, they’ll take over and slap me upside the head. “I’m not doing *that*, you silly writer man, you. Don’t try to make me.”

    After I’m done a story, even a piece of flash fiction, the characters don’t go away–they just hang out in my mind and chill with all the other characters. Sometimes they hook up and make new characters. Some of these characters and their odd little mutant character-spawn have been keeping me company for over twenty years.

    Don’t tell anyone though, because that sounds downright batty.

    • I love your characters as cats analogy. I can imagine it so easily — characters hiding in the washing basket ready to pounce… characters sitting on top of the bookcase… characters ready to jump out when you least expect it and either purr and rub against your leg, or swat you with their claws for no apparent reason.

      And nothing sounds batty to a writer. 🙂

  9. Pingback: Questionable Characters | Davetopia

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