Many writing workshops start their sessions on character development with a sheet detailing the hero’s name, age, eye color and hair color. They then move onto his job, his hobbies, and his family background. Next they might add a picture from the Internet or a magazine which looks a little like the hero, and perhaps an image of his home or workplace. This is all useful information, and great for keeping track of details so you do not find them changing as you write. However, these are not always the most important questions. The questions that matter most are often the ones that allow you to delve into the character’s psyche.
These questions can be answered in different ways. You may like to conduct written, or even tape-recorded, interviews with your characters. You can also take these questions as prompts and write a scene or two to flesh out your understanding of your characters. At the very least, this provides background information to help understand how a character will act in different circumstances, and at times the information uncovered through this preparation work can become a crucial part of the story.
The best questions to ask about your characters are ones that will take you away from the predictable paths of family, schooling and employment, so that when you return to their everyday world, you find it enriched by the knowledge you have gained. Here are five of my favorites to ask:
- What keeps your protagonist awake at night?
- What is in their purse, wallet or desk drawer?
- What is their biggest fear and, crucially, why?
- What did they dream last night?
- What is their favorite food and what is the one thing they would starve rather than touch?
If you find prompts like these helpful, Peter Elbow has a very extensive list in his guide Writing With Power. Kate Walker also has an excellent selection in her Twelve Point Guide to Writing Romance.
However, there is no need to turn to expensive writing guides. You can easily collect a wealth of questions in everyday life, from sources like TV chat shows and celebrity interviews in newspapers and magazines. While you are at it, why not imagine how your hero or heroine’s story would be presented on Jeremy Kyle or Oprah? Thinking of their responses to the host’s questions will provide an insight into your character’s reactions to a challenging situation, while considering how the show would headline the interview highlights the aspects of their story likely to intrigue your readers the most.