“For your born writer, nothing is so healing as the realization that he has come upon the right word.”
—Catherine Drinker Bowen

4 Questions to Improve Your Character Development

There are plenty of methods and extensive questionnaires out there to help your character development. Charlaine Harris sometimes goes through her characters’ handbags. Marcel Proust famously used a list of thirty-five meticulous questions to determine everything from nicknames to what talent your character would most like to have.

character development

And for sure, the more you know about your character, the better. But I’ve always felt that these approaches tend to be overly complicated and time-consuming … and they don’t necessarily give you the information that’s really most critical to power your story.

Instead, I go for a more efficient approach that cuts right to the character’s heart. I look only to the key factors that define the character’s core and drive the plot. The more cosmetic stuff like nicknames I figure out as I write.

4 Questions to Improve Your Character Development

So if you’re ready to get writing and don’t want to waste time on extensive questionnaires, try out my four questions to go deeper with your characters:

1. Where does your character come from?

This question covers both geographical and personal roots—everything from setting to family. Consider how the physical demands of where your character has lived might shape them, as well as familial values, strains, and traditions have made him/her the person s/he is today.

As an example, let’s look at Katniss from The Hunger Games, a character most of know well by now. Growing up in District 12 made her a markedly different person than if she had grown up in the Capitol, or a different district, or modern-day America.

The same is true for your character. Find those ways your character’s history and setting have shaped him/her.

2. What does your character want?

This critical question will drive much of your plot, and it may be largely informed by question one. Be sure to investigate this question thoroughly.

But don’t forget to ask this question of your support characters, too. Without his/her own motivations, these characters are nothing but shadow men, and these motivations can become the heart to supporting plot threads.

What a character wants doesn’t necessarily have to complicated, either. Katniss’ actions constantly come back to a single core desire throughout the series: Her desire to protect her sister.

3. What are your character’s most important relationships?

The relationships in your character’s life are hugely important. People are often willing to do things for people they love that they would never do for themselves. They’ll even change their behaviors to better fit what they believe people they care about would want from them.

As mentioned above, Katniss’ relationship with her sister drives her. But so do her relationships with her mother, Gale, Peeta, Cinna, and many others throughout the books. Who influences your character, and how?

4. What is your character’s biggest fear?

This is the other side of the coin from what your character wants most, and can drive his/her actions just as much. And perhaps even more important than what your character fears, explore why s/he fears it.

Fear can be complicated. At the beginning of the Hunger Games series, Katniss fears being killed, and being forced to kill others. As the dominos fall and her face-off with President Snow gets bigger, she fears that she is being used. Most of all, she fears losing those she loves.

Get Right to Your Character’s Core

Knowing your characters well is utterly critical to developing any story. But when it’s time to give your characters shape and definition, don’t waste time on extensive questionnaires that get you weighed down in details. Instead, let these four questions take you right to your character’s core.

Do you have any tools you use to help develop your characters? Share your thoughts in the comments section.


Using these questions, take 15 minutes and write a profile of your character. Share your results in the comments!

About Emily Wenstrom

By day, Emily Wenstrom, is the editor of short story website wordhaus, author social media coach, and freelance content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstrom, a sci-fi and fantasy author whose first novel Mud will release in March 2016.

  • manilamac

    I write & file pieces about my characters (main & major secondary) & for the main ones, may return to them several times. There are lots of folks in my novels, good guys & bad, so at some point I also write a for-file piece on which other characters are their ‘shadows’…even antagonists have feared antagonists. The first files help me bring them to life in my head, so I can monitor their behavior. The shadow file is important to off-main-plot resolutions. In truth, I seldom go back to my original files…having written them is usually enough. I’m on the last 40-50ppg of a novel draft right now…so there are over a dozen people living (& interacting) in my head. It’s around this point in the process that I begin muttering to myself that my next book is going to be 500 very short personal essays!

  • Good one, Emily. I’m going to review my work-in-progress with these notes in mind. Thank you. I have one guiding principle, and that is — what will cause my protagonist to utterly fall apart. Because that’s where my stories have to go. Whatever will bring my character to a radical change of heart. All those things you mention are key to that happening. Cheers. ~ PJ

  • Sarah Bourgeois

    The four Questions: Diana Daughter of Darkness

    My character Diana, is from the kingdom of Firefall and is it’s princess. All Diana wants is to find her father and get justice for her mother’s untimely death. But she finds herself haunted by her destiny more and more as she tries to achieve those goals. Diana’s relationship with her father is the most outstanding in the book but her relationship with her handmaiden and the two boys she grew up with are also very important to her. Diana’s biggest fear is failure. She doesn’t want to fail her father or her Kingdom. The power inside of her grows every day but she fears that it will soon take over her and leave nothing but destruction in it’s wake. This is perhaps what scares her the most…herself.

  • Emily,

    Some good tips. My character questionnaire is at least 100 questions long and I often take characters to lunch—or let them take me to lunch.

    But I like your four tips for character development. They get to the heart of things quickly and provide an excellent framework for more complex development if that’s what a writer wants to do.

    I’d like to add one suggestion.

    A character’s worldview plays a major role in the way he or she responds to life in general and to individual incidents. A person who believes life is the result of time plus matter plus chance generally behaves differently than someone who believes they were created for a purpose.

    All five factors–your four and my addition–contribute to the development of person’s personality and behavior.

    Thanks again for the excellent tips. I’ve been away for several weeks polishing my own novel. This was a wonderful way to get back into the routine.

  • Great tips, Emily!

    I’ve found that writing side stories about my characters helps me to explore who my characters are. I’ll make up a scenario, drop a character in the middle of it, and then give them free reign. This practice helps me flesh out how they make decisions and how they interact with the other characters in my story. Plus, it’s just fun to do!


  • LaCresha Lawson

    Awesome article.

  • Yvonne

    The article was extremely helpful it gave me ideas of how to strengthen my short story.

  • Deborah

    My character is about a teenage girl that has strong family values due to her upbringing in a strict home where her mother is the head of the household, suddenly her mother dies she fills empty and alone, as all of her siblings are grown they have there own children. She start’s to explore the world and gets caught up in it.

  • Emily,

    Excellent tips, especially number 3. People often understand themselves through their relationships with others. How they’re greeted, how they’re treated, how others understand their humour, their moods, their needs and wants. To understand a person’s key relationships, and what they’re willing to do for the people they love (as you say), means understanding what makes them tick.

    I also liked the point you made in Q4. Our fears sometimes reveal our true nature, in that they are a direct consequence of our values. In your example, Katniss fears being forced to kill others, because she values life and humanity. Our values sets us apart.

  • R.Aller

    Great tips, thanks for sharing Emily. I think what a person wears says a lot about his/her personality. So that’s where I often like to start:

    On the door stood a mid-aged woman in a black coat reaching down to her knees, a red scarf around her neck and a winter cap that covered most of her luscious brown hair. She had a book in her hand that she kept between her palms. Every now and then she would flip it open, read a few lines before closing it again and stare back at the meadow beyond her porch. It seemed as though she was deep in thought, and I afraid of interrupting stood still waiting for her to look back and notice my presence.

  • Nice post! Number 2 is the most important, but # 3 is the one I need to spend more time on. I never really even considered that with character development, and now I’m kicking myself because it’s such an important aspect of creating a “real” person in your character.

  • Chat Ebooks

    Thanks for the tips, Emily. I believe #2 is the most critical one since it will somewhat define who your character is. I’d like to share another article on character development that I hope could be of help to others. Here’s the link: https://www.chatebooks.com/blog-Character-Development-that-Entices-Readers

  • Imam Rizal (Emperor)

    Awesome 🙂
    Finally something that helps developing characters other than long ass questionnaires, interviews or worksheets that became too tedious to do.

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  • Chat Ebooks

    Thanks for this article, Emily! I never thought with only 4 questions I’d be able to come up with a set of believable characters. I’ve always had a long line of questions just to have a concrete description of what and how my characters would look and sound like. I’d like to share an article I found on character development. Hope this could help as well: https://www.chatebooks.com/blog-Character-Development-that-Entices-Readers

  • Sana Damani

    My character is a teen-aged girl brought up by a young, single mother who has had to work very hard to take care of her child. The girl doesn’t want to make things harder on her mother and tends to smile a lot and pretend everything is just fine, even when it’s not. Her relationship with her mother and the lack of one with her father shapes many of her views from romantic relationships to political ideology. Her greatest fear is to not end up as someone her mother can be proud of raising. Another quirk is her fear of sharing her feelings with others.