75 Character Development Questions: Wednesday Prompts and Inspirations

chalkboard-3-AYou get an idea for a story you can’t let go of. You know who the main character has to be. You remember a woman of about 30, tall, blonde, a bit of a neat freak. She is someone you met on a flight last year. You remember how everyone took notice of her. And just after the in-flight movie ended, she shared her deepest secret with you, a stranger she’ll probably never see again.

You flip open your laptop, and for the next five months, your story takes shape. Finally, your first draft is finished. You’re proud of what you’ve accomplished. You send it to your critique group, anxious for their praise. The e-mails roll in, and everyone says the same thing. Your MC is flat.

What? But I can picture her, I can still smell her perfume, I recall lots of people turning their heads as she passed. That tall, beautiful woman whose secret I’m keeping. All of this is not enough. You barely know her.

So how do you flesh out a character?

Before I write the first words of any story, I take each of my characters through a lengthy interview process. This goes beyond deciding upon their name, hair and eye color, birthday, country and town they live in.

I gained this good habit in a writing course a number of years ago. The instructor asked us to answer twenty questions about our main character as well as other prominent players in our story. I skimmed down the questions. “This could take hours, even days!” I moaned. “All I want to do is write my story.”

The instructor knew what she was doing. “Take your time,” she said. “Don’t answer the questions quickly. Think about your character. Put yourself in his/her shoes as you address each question.”

A few days later, I had mapped out my main characters. I was stunned at my intimate knowledge of these people. Yes, people. They had shifted from imaginary characters I dreamed up to flesh and blood, real people. I felt I knew them like I knew my friends…like I know myself. I e-mailed my instructor two words. Thank you.

You are going to spend a great deal of time with the characters in your novel. In order for your reader to cheer them on, to disagree with them, to understand them, and to cry with them, you need to get to know them–intimately.

Could you list ten things you know about your best friend? About your spouse or significant other? About your child? Think about your closest friend. How much do you know about the person you trust with your thoughts and feelings? What is it about them that you like? What is the glue that bonds your friendship?

As serious writers, we spend more time with the characters in our novels than we do with our friends. To write characters into reality, we have to get to know them. We must befriend them. Below is my 75 point questionnaire to ground you in the souls of your characters.

 

75 POINT CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT QUESTIONNAIRE

Name: (Are they named after someone in their family?)

Age and birthday:

Does MC share their birth date with anyone they know?

General physical description:

a. height

b. weight

c. eye color

d. hair color

e. any distinguishing features

Describe the place your MC calls home:

If MC is a child, describe their bedroom:

Type of neighborhood:

What is his/her occupation if an adult:

What are his/her chores if a child:

If child, grade in school:

Mother and/or wife’s name, background, and occupation:

Father and or husband’s name, background, and occupation:

Where does MC live (city, state, country, on a farm, in an apartment, in a research station on Mars)?

What landmarks are near them (park, shopping, friend’s house, beach, school, etc…)?

List all siblings, their names, ages, and one or more sentences to describe them and their relationship to your MC.

How does your MC view each of his family members and friends?

What is his/her position in the family? (parent, oldest, middle, youngest sibling, the pet?)

Pet(s) — What kind and how long have they had them?

How did they come to get this pet and/or what do they like best about their pet(s)?

Where do they keep their pet(s)? (horse boarded or in barn on property, fish tank in kitchen or bedroom, indoor or outdoor dog, etc…)

Favorite piece of jewelry or accessory they always or frequently wear: (earrings, watch, purse, shoes, etc…)

If female, what items does she always carry in her purse? (if child – list items in their backpack.)

If male, what photographs or information does he keep in his wallet?

Is he/she prompt or late for most things:

Organized, sloppy, etc…

Mode of transportation:

What options are available if their car broke down, if they missed their bus or train?)

Favorite sports:

Interests or hobbies:

Dress style:

Relationship to men and/or boys he/she knows:

Relationship to women and/or girls he/she knows:

Leader or follower: (he/she must be like others in dress, mannerisms, and taste? Marches to own beat?)

Their favorite expression: (Way cool!, No way! Whatever, Don’t get me started, etc…)

Habit: (bites fingernails when nervous or fingers necklace pendant, rubs hand over beard when thinking, etc…)

Their personality type: Glamour queen, no frills, down-to-earth, wishes he/she could disappear, jock, rugged, outgoing, know-it-all, etc…)

What are they good at (skills)?

What is their greatest ambition?

What is their best quality?

What is their worst quality?

Sense of humor?

Temper? What sets your MC off?

What things do they like?

What do they dislike?

Quirks:

Favorite foods and beverages:

Who is their closest friend and why?

Describe their perfect day.

How do they speak? (with an accent, stutters, lisps, in a monotone, etc…)

How do they walk? (with purpose, drags feet, limps, etc…)

What is their greatest fear?

What is their greatest regret?

What are their flaws? (lacks confidence, shy, speech impediment, fear of something.)

Based on their fears, dislikes, and, worst qualities, what problem would they least likely want to face?

Who does he/she love and care about? (parent, child, friend, pet)

To hear your character’s voice you need to take this one step further.

Instead of you filling in the blanks about your character, take what you learned from above and imagine you are having a conversation with your character or a letter exchange: Ask them to tell you in their own words…

Who are you?

What do you most want?

What freaks you out?

What is your first thought when you wake up?

What is the thought you fall asleep with?

Considering the challenges you have planned for your MC, ask – How would you feel if…?

What would you think if you heard your friend, sibling, parent, spouse say…?

What is the worst day you can imagine having? What could make it even worse?

What is the best day you can imagine having? What could top that?

If you inherited or won a sizable sum of money what would you do with it?

If you got a promotion at work, or if you aced your finals, who would you want to share this news with?

Now that you and your MC are best friends, go deeper.

What do you think is your best feature or personality trait?

If you could, what would you change about yourself?

Who do you wish you were more like?

What is the biggest secret you keep?

If a tornado or other disaster threatened to destroy your home in the next twenty minutes, what would you save?

 

You’re ready to write.

Character Soup – Wednesday Writer’s Prompts and Inspiration

chalkboard-3-AAs writers, we all have a natural tendency to people watch. Each day we sit beside, pass on the street, get honked at, speak to, and get called on the phone by possible characters for our stories. Our world is a veritable character soup!

Some of my favorite places to jot details in my pocket notebook are coffee shops, train stations, and, nearly everyone’s favorite people-watching location…the airport.

Have you ever sat across from a group of people and absent mindedly stared at one person in particular? What was it about his appearance that set him apart? His advanced age? his dated clothes? Something resting on his lap or clutched to his chest? A look in his eyes filled with joy and contentment of having lived a good life?

Next time you’re wondering about someone, reach for your notebook and begin speculating.

Start by describing their appearance.

* The fashion-conscious woman–she wears the latest in Vogue, her gold necklace rests perfectly above the neckline of her designer dress, her carry-on bag matches her purse, and her polished nails match her lipstick and belt.

* The confident man– he wears a button-down, white shirt with jeans–worn at the knees. His back pocket is loosened at one corner and bulges with the outline of his wallet. He finger-styles his hair, and when he sits you notice his western boots.

* The homeless woman–she wears several layers of clothes, a torn garbage bag nests in the protection of the grocery cart she rests her hand upon. Her shoes have holes in the sides and the heels are worn. Her tangled, brown hair is pulled back under a frayed, knit cap.

What does the individual have with them? A briefcase? Purse? Stack of folders? A puppy in a pet carrier? A stroller with an infant? A letter? Absolutely nothing? What can you tell about the person from this?

What is this person doing? Checking e-mails on their mobile device? Scribbling details of you in their pocket notebook? (Yeah! A fellow writer.) Feeling in their coat pocket occasionally to check on something. (Hmmmm, possibly suspicious…)

If you’re at the train station or airport, can you speculate where the individual might be going, what awaits him/her there, and what they might need to do there? Are they returning home or beginning their journey? Who did they see? What business brought them to this point?

What about their activity can begin to paint a picture of their personality? If they are writing, do they crumple a sheet of paper with only a few marks on it, or do they use every possible writing space available on that page? Wasteful vs. Frugal.

BEFORE TODAY IS THROUGH, see how many new character sketches you can create.

And maybe one more…(?)

Observe yourself. Yes, you are a potential character for your stories, too. Do you know anyone better? How are you dressed today? What do your clothing choices say about you? What do you carry with you that others can observe? Is the tone in your voice irritated, hostile, happy, or pensive? When in public, what do you talk about that others might overhear? What do you say that a fellow writer in the crowd might document as an example of REAL dialogue?

And while you are creating fresh characters, keep in mind that the details you include are a fine exercise for show don’t tell.

Don’t tell us the man is old…show us his time-worn facial features, shaky hands, and dependency of his cane.

Don’t tell us the woman is stylish…show us her designer outfit, her long-legged, confident stride, and the shiny, silver heels of her black pumps.

Do you already keep a notebook for on-location character sketches? Have you ever been a character in one of your stories?

I’d love to hear from you.

The Power Of A Mask

Minesota leaves-bannerAutumn is my favorite season. Fat pumpkins sit on the front steps of the neighborhood houses. Farms in my rural community open their gates to the public, welcoming them with horse or tractor-drawn hay rides, pumpkin patches, corn mazes, face painting, and stands with tummy-tempting, hot, spiced, apple cider and applesauce doughnuts.  This outing is the highlight of October for my family.  (That, and the chocolate chip pumpkin bread we bake together.)

And what has this got to do with writing?

This year at the farm we visit, I decided to conduct an experiment in altering one’s personality.

As writers, this is exactly what we do when we create a character.

My unsuspecting volunteer… none other than my daughter.

maze-4034The three of us wandered around the farm, petting goats, jumping in piles of corn, climbing enormous, rubber spider webs, and then, as the wind pulled up, and the sky darkened… we entered the seven acre corn maze. (Actually, it was a warm and sunny day, but didn’t that make it more seasonally dramatic?)

Families were charging around the rows, walking into dead ends, retracing their steps, laughing and asking everyone they passed if they knew their way out. (We got there early enough to make sure we’d have plenty of daylight to get ourselves ‘un lost.’) As a large group was following us, I stopped and asked my daughter, who is nine, to pretend she was a cat.

“Go ahead, honey,” I said, “meow, paw at the air, pounce on something.”

She looked at me with that  you-have-got-to-be-from-another-planet  look and started walking away from me a little faster.

“Oh, come on,” I coaxed.

She hid in the cornfield.cat-4038

This is where the experiment began… “Well!” I said, “Would you look at the strange thing I found in my purse?”

That got her attention. She peered from behind the dried corn leaves, eyes widening as she saw the paper, cat mask I pulled from my purse.

“Wow! You brought that for me?”

cat-2-4034She put the mask on and instantly lost her shyness. She couldn’t care less what the families around her thought or said. Behind that mask she could be anyone. And at that moment, she transformed into an amazing cat. She hissed, she pawed the air, she pounced, and she couldn’t stop posing for the camera.cat-4041

Isn’t this, to some degree, what we do when creating characters? Aren’t we giving them masks to try on as we write and rewrite their personalities?

 

 

Here’s a character making example:

We give our character a name.

We give them an appearance.

We add some quirks or habits.

We sometimes  add a phrase or comment the character says.

We give them history/background info.

We give them a family.

Eventually, we have created a character we can move through the pages of our novel.

But what happens when a personality trait doesn’t mesh with a twist in our plot?

I’ve created a fairly confident character. He’s accustomed to winning. A big annual competition is coming up at work, and he’s already won five years in a row. When the scene comes up, will my reader perch on the edge of their recliner with streams of sweat streaming from their brow, wondering, hoping (knowing) he’ll win. Nope.

We switch gears and change our gallant hero to the underdog. He’s quiet, a tad on the shy side. This poor guy has been teased by his older brothers since he could talk. He’s never had enough money to buy any stylish clothes. Girls don’t notice him. He always gives his best, but always falls short of winning. This likable guy needs this win if only to give him a taste of success.

So, we find that changing the personality of one of our characters is similar to trying on different masks. Except as writers we exchange paper masks for words.

It’s Wednesday! Writer’s Prompts and Inspirations Day.

chalkboard-3-AWe all have favorite books–books that open naturally to our favorite passages, books we read annually, books we have purchased because they have deeply touched a part of us. We love these books for their characters. We also love  these books for their true-to-life locations. What a gift it is when a writer has researched a location well enough to transport us there. When written well enough, we can stroll beside the ocean, feeling the massage beneath our feet of stones washed smooth and slippery. We can move from room to room in an abandoned mansion, nearly tasting the musty smell of mildew as the foul air stains our breath. We can walk down the squeaky, paint-worn steps of an old farmhouse and hear the sizzle of bacon, crisping in a skillet. We can relax in a black gondola in Venice and breathe in the smell of… (never mind.)  We can hear the hush of snow sifting around us on a still, Winter’s evening. 

This Wednesday, I’d like you to consider the many locations available to us in our writing. Think about why you chose a particular location for one of your projects. Does that location add to the tension? Does it seem the most natural and obvious choice? Could the story work as well or better in a different setting?

Suppose in the book, From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg that Claudia didn’t run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Suppose she ran away with her younger brother, Jamie, to New York with no plans. Two children alone in a dangerous city where anything can happen. A city where evil can lurk in shadows, where the darkness of night offers no protection. That would make for a different story.

How about Charlotte’s Web by E.B White. Suppose Fern lives in a little apartment with her parents. One day, while on a school field trip to a pig farm in the country, she spots a tiny runt of a litter. Fern, being the caring girl she is, packs this pink bundle of squirmy cuteness in her backpack (when the teacher isn’t looking) and brings him home.

Location/Setting is very important to the story. First we need a central location. For this example I’ll choose a farmhouse.

Next we need to broaden out. What lies beyond the farmhouse? An abandoned house? An office building?  What lies beyond the farmhouse is important as our MC will be moving around the area during the telling of the story. For this example, let’s suppose our main character is a little girl named Betsy. One day Betsy’s dog runs away (Not a complex story example, but one that will suffice.)  The chase begins! Now if Betsy’s best friend’s house is in the direction she’s running, will the tension increase? But what if Betsy lives next to a rocky stream, a forest, a cemetery, or…that abandoned house?

Sights and sounds play a part in location, too. Let’s pretend Betsy puts her fears behind her and dashes in the abandoned house after her dog. She might feel chilly breezes along her neck, hear the wind whistle eerie tunes through cracks in the windows, see cobwebs flutter. Tension climbs.

The weather and time of day add another level and must be appropriate for the location. Of course we’ll have the dog run away as the sun is setting. We might even add the threat of a severe storm. And what if it isn’t June 1st? What if the day is October 31st? HALLOWEEN!!!

Time to switch gears.

What if we decide that a little girl chasing her runaway dog in the country sounds boring? What if we really change-up that location? Suppose Betsy is on vacation with her family in Cairo. While there, Betsy befriend’s a child. One day while the two girls are playing near a street market, the little girl’s dog runs away.

* How does the location change the story?

*How do the actions of the characters change in this new place?

*Important items available to your characters are no longer present. What new things are present in this location to add challenges?

*By making this change you have introduced drastic cultural differences. The people’s attitudes and ways will be quite foreign to your main character, the landscape is now unfamiliar, and the language will pose a problem. The list goes on.

Are you ready for your Wednesday Prompt and Inspiration?

Take a short story you’ve written or the first pages of one of your novels, and see what happens when you give the location a major jolt.

I’d love to hear from you. To comment, scroll to the top of the post and click Comment below the title.

The Not So Lonely Life Of This Writer

My parents were what I would call organized, tidy, hoarders. Definitely not the clinical hoarders you might have seen on TV. You know the ones… they scramble over a precarious stack of broken electronic devices balanced at the back door. Empty boxes of macaroni and cheese stuffed between piles of worn-out shoes sit beside garbage bags filled with dated clothes ready to cushion the impact should someone stumble.

No. This does not describe my parents…

Organized, tidy hoarders are people who keep everything of importance (not immediate importance, mind you, but eventual or possible importance.) These individuals know where everything is months and years after filing them away.

It was after my father passed away that the family had to go through the household items, making piles labeled donate, garbage, and keep. My keep stack grew to a ridiculous height in a clinical attempt to preserve my memories of my parents. I have since returned to my senses and donated some of the items.

Back to my parent’s home…

My mother kept a box filled with every Valentine card she ever received next to a box of every birthday card she ever received. (Continue filling the virtual shelf with one box per card-giving holiday.)  My father kept magazines of interest filed with correspondences to editors, asking for more particulars. (About one and a half tons according to the haul-away man’s scale.)

SO WHAT HAS THIS GOT TO DO WITH WRITING? I’m getting to that…

So it didn’t surprise me to find a box filled with my old report cards, starting with kindergarten through high school.  What did surprise me was a comment which appeared year after year by different teachers.

Leslie doesn’t play with other children. She prefers to be by herself.

Can anyone say writer?

Some people use the word, lonely, to describe the life of a writer. And from the repeating comment on those old report cards, it sure sounds like I was lonely, but I’m one of those writers who doesn’t feel that way. Okay, okay…you’ve got me. Yes, I’m here at my computer, sharing my thoughts with you while my husband is at work and my daughter is at school. And no, besides my needy dog, a chatty parakeet, a baby Cockatiel, 5 croaking tree frogs, a bucket of chirping crickets to feed the croaking frogs, and a tank of quiet (and sometimes dead) fish, I am alone.

Alone but not lonely. (Seriously NOT LONELY.)

When I’m writing, I’m closest to my inner voice. I’m free to tap into myself for ideas, inspirations, childhood memories, and moments I want to explore through words.

When I’m working on a story, I’m spending time with my friends. Sure, they’re my imaginary human and animal companions, but as they are characters I brought to life, let life happen to, and spent months or years with, they’re real to me.

How many of you have created a character, brought him/her to life, had to make something happen to him/her (throw rocks but don’t kill) and found yourself aching over his/her pain?

And now… a brilliant quote from Robert Frost:Robert Frost

It isn’t the location that brings tears or surprises to the writer or reader, those tears and surprises come from our characters actions, reactions, and decisions to situations we place in their path.

Sure, we are alone when we’re writing, but I’d guess that there are many writers who feel as I do.

Do you have a favorite character you created? Why do you like that character so much? Are they like you? Are they similar to a close family member or friend? Or are they one of those villainous sorts so addicting to include in our writing?

I’d love to hear from you!