Some people have long and detailed lists of questions they answer for their characters, right down to what they carry around in their pockets. Others simply have characters appear to them, fully formed, ready to live the story from the beginning. I think I have a little bit of the latter, in that characters just show up and demand to have their story told, but in order for me to know what kind of story suits them, I need a little more information.
I start with the basics – GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict.) but I like to go a little deeper and more detailed than that, and so I’ve expanded my list of questions to ten – not quite as long as the Proust Questionnaire, but hopefully a candid and intimate look inside a fully realized character.
As of page one of the story, What do they want?
This is the commonly understood character goal – the thing that the character wants. I need to know that my character is going to have protagonist drive, initiative, ambition, whatever you want to call it, so I need to know what they want.
I write character centered, plot heavy fiction, so I don’t really sit well with characters who “just want to be left alone” or “just want to be normal” most of the time. I want a character who wants something.
Why do they want it? is it a good reason, or is there something flawed in their motivation?
And when I say a character who wants something, I mean a character who has hung a lot of meaning and significance to the thing that they want. So when they say, “I want to be an astronaut” and you say, “why?” they have an answer that has a lot weighing on it.
Why can’t they just have it? What or who is standing in their way?
I write western stories, and western stories die without conflicts, obstacles, difficulties and frustrations. So I need a barrier to success that will take a whole book to get past. It could be an antagonist directly opposing them–or fighting for exactly the same thing, but for reasons that oppose the character’s motivations. It could be a force–of nature, or of culture.
I said up there, right off the top of my head, that a character wanted to be an astronaut. Their opposition could be a person who’s competing for the same astronaut spot. It could be that they’re a woman or a person of color, trying to become an astronaut in a sexist and or racist society. Or it could be that someone close to them, someone they love, is opposed to them becoming an astronaut, and they’re trying to push them to be something else.
How will they fight against that opposition to get what they want?
This is where I start exploring a character’s competencies and personality. If I have a determined, disciplined character who is an athlete and a scholar striving for the chance to become an astronaut, they’re gonna keep trying. But how? It’ll be different if the character is a bit of a competitive bulldozer who will prove that they have the skills by acing every test put to them, or a socially adept, charismatic people person with top piloting skills who wins hearts and minds through their insight into people.
What will they never ever do, even if it means they’ll get what they want?
This is where I explore ethics, morality, fears, and boundaries, so I will know that my determined, competitive character will never cheat to get ahead, and believes solidly in the idea that merit matters, and my socially adept, charismatic character will draw the line at blackmail or coercion to get what they want. Or maybe they have a looser morality than that. This is where I explore the limits and breaking points for a character, so I know what I’m going to make them face later.
This could be an antagonist willing to break those barriers, or a story where the protagonist is put in a situation where they have to face those limits themselves in the course of the story.
What core belief – about the world, about life, about success – does the character have that protects them from “losing” or being hurt – but ultimately holds them back from true success?
This might be familiar to you as the “Fatal Flaw” or the “Lie the Character believes” or the “Central Misbelief” or the “Moral Failing,” depending on what craft books you’ve read. I see it as a personal obstacle that has to be faced and overcome in the personal journey of the character, if that character is going to succeed at the end of the story. This problem is going to get in their way early in the story, and keep driving them to failure points as the characters learn and develop.
What did they want when they were just a kid? How is it different from what they want now? What happened to change it?
This is an important question to me because it explains the origins of the character’s personality, skills, morality, protagonist drive, and their limiting core belief. I spend some time thinking about the character’s childhood in general, but I always have them complete this sentence: “When I was a child, I dreamed about becoming ______.”
Who or what do they love most in the world?
This is a humanizing touchstone. It’s also a great vulnerability. Wield it with compassion and cruelty.
What are they afraid to lose?
This could be a secret they hold. It might be a possession. It might be a particular person’s good opinion. It could be the neighborhood where they grew up, the country they fled from in the wake of war and conquest. It could be their social status. It might take a while to figure this one out.
What do they regret the most?
Did they regret something they did? Or do they regret something they didn’t do? How much does it weigh on them? Do they have protagonist drive to mend that regret? Do they possess or lack the skills or qualities to make amends or heal the old wound or rekindle the opportunity?
It’s been a long time since I published a craft blog post, but I haven’t quit talking about craft. I made a Patreon account, and I have posts there about things like
- a synopsis writing guide that will help expose structural manuscript problems
- how to evaluate a scene to make sure it’s doing the right things
- how to build a story when all you have is a character
I do a new writing related post every month, available to patrons on a sliding scale basis – pick the level of patronage you can afford and you’re in!
Starting in August I am starting a Live Sessions tier, where I will explore a subject about the craft and business of writing on zoom, where you can ask more questions. Look for it then!