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.
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.