Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Know Your Character Inside and Out

For an update to this post with additional questions, click to: Designing character interviews that really matter (including genre-inspired questions)

What do you really need to know about your character? There are a lot of lists out there offering possible interview questions that you can use to flesh out a character, but when I look at them, I find they don't help me much. Why? Well, because of the amount of stuff they ask that isn't precisely relevant - at least, not relevant to the characters I use. It's not much help to ask if Allayo or Rulii or the History Keeper like coffee - they've never heard of it, and it would have nothing to do with their stories even if they had!

The other day I ran across some terrific character questions over at Nicola Morgan's blog, Help! I Need a Publisher! The reason these questions are great is that they offer in parentheses a sense of how the question is relevant to story elements - so I'm going to start by commenting on them and then add some of my own.

Please notice I haven't changed the wording of Nicola Morgan's questions. She chose to phrase them as if they were directly asking questions of the character. I approve of this heartily. Many people tend to ask questions about character (and world) in a distant manner, but taking the questions and putting them in personal address form automatically takes you one step closer to finding the voice of your character. Take advantage - answer as if you were the character, and let a simple switch of pronoun put you in your character's head as you get started. Here are the questions, quoted from Nicola Morgan with my own comments in color:

1. What is your worst fear? And your second worst? (Likely to be part of the conflict and tension.) Indeed, this should probably happen during the story.

2. What would you most like people to know about you? (Make sure it's obvious, then.) I'm going to split this one in two:

Part A - What do you want readers to know about you? Seed information like this in character memories, emotional reactions, judgments, or actions.

Part B - What do you want story characters to know about you? This affects how you outwardly represent yourself and the social groups you belong to, for instance in your choice of clothing, speech/interactive style, etc.
3. What would you most like to hide? (Every hero has a flaw.) I think this is related to #2, inasmuch as readers should be aware of these flaws even if story characters are not. The kinds of things we hide are often related to our desire for acceptance in particular social groups, and/or our desire to escape punishment by them. It's reasonable to anticipate that a major character flaw will be revealed or at least cause the protagonist serious trouble in the course of the story.
4. What would you most like to change about your life? (Could be part of the conflict and motivation; could be sub-plot.) I would add, "And how does that affect your current behavior?"

5. Why should we care about you? (Because if we don't, we won't read on.) This is a big one - indeed, a story deal-breaker. If you can't answer this question, your story isn't ready. Period. It's also a show-don't-tell problem... a character shouldn't tell us why we should care. Usually it's a question of having them share their goals and desires with the reader and then showing what will happen if they don't reach those goals.

6. What were you doing before this story started? (This informs your back-story.) I always like to have a fully fleshed back-story including elements of personal history that helped the character get into the position that they are currently in, both physically and emotionally/psychologically.
7. Do people understand you? If not, what do they get wrong? (Makes your character more real because it informs interaction with other characters.) And why? What is it about you that confuses people? Cultural differences perhaps, including different interpretation of manners and behavior? Different moral values? Different language?
8. If I met you for the first time, would I immediately know what you were like or would it take a while to get to know you? (As above.) And does this differ depending upon the type of person you're interacting with? Who has an easy time getting to know you? Who has a hard time? This will relate to questions of what kind of people you trust and what kind you don't.

9. What sort of people like you? Do adults like you? Do boys like you? Do girls like you? Why? Or why not? (Helps place your character within the real world instead of just on the page. It may also inspire some ideas for painting your character richly but subtly.) Keep in mind that distinctions like child/adult, boys/girls might not be the most important. When dealing with another culture, there can be all kinds of distinctions (caste borders, clique borders, subculture borders, institutionally defined roles, etc.) Which social groups are inclined to like you and which are not, and why?
10. Are you happy on your own? (As above.) What does being alone mean to you?
11. What are you going to achieve in my story? (Crucial for plot, since character drives action.) In my mind this is related to the question of why we should care. What do you want to achieve?

12. What trivial but annoying habit do you have? (Makes character more real. Character can show this habit when angry / sad / stressed - helps you show without telling emotion too much.)) To whom is it annoying and why?

13. What trivial but annoying habits do you dislike in other people? (As above.) There are a lot of questions one could pursue on the topic of what a character finds annoying. What constitutes invasion for you? What do you consider dirty? etc.

14. What four (or three or five) adjectives best sum you up? (Helps you remember traits to paint most strongly.) This is a really good place to think about the kind of language your character would use. What qualities does the character's culture define as virtuous? As evil? As unruly or problematic? Try to pick adjectives that imply judgment, such as "incorrigible," "valorous," "ladylike," " etc.
15. Are you going to die in this story? Should you? (Informs plot and interacts with reader's engagement.) I'm not so sure about this one, just because I like to have the character be ignorant of his/her own future. However, it would be interesting to know whether the character wants to die, and how he or she feels about death.
The next set of questions is my own, designed to address specifically the intersection of character and world. Since in sf/f, establishing the nature of the world is a major task that must be accomplished at the same time as introducing the character, why not let your character carry your world in his/her own mind, emotions and judgments? These are the questions - which I phrased as though you were the character asking them of yourself:

1. What is my home like? How do I visualize its boundaries?
2. What weather and physical conditions do I consider normal? What do I fear?
3. What kind of topography did I grow up in, and how did it influence my physical condition and my concepts of comfort?
4. In what kind of place do I feel most at home? What shapes and textures give me comfort, or discomfort?
5. Who is in charge here? Do I respect them, fear them, both?
6. How do I show who I am in the way I dress? What is comfortable? Will I endure discomfort for the sake of looking good or looking powerful?
7. Where do the things I own come from? Do I worry about getting more?
8. What is delicious to me? What do I consider unworthy of consumption?
9. What are my most prized possessions? Do I hoard anything? Do I have so much of anything that I care little if I must give it away?
10. Who do I consider to be unlike me? Are their differences charming or alarming?
11. Am I in control of my own actions and the happenings around me? What or whom do I believe in?

The last thing I want to mention here is character motivation, which I've discussed before but which bears mentioning. Setting up a character's fundamental motivators is very important, but they're a little like a push off the wall in swimming. It'll get your swimmer pretty far, but not all the way to the other side. Each plot event or interaction will change the character's trajectory slightly, and the character's response to events acts like the swimmer's stroke. That additional level of moment-by-moment motivation can drastically change the action and the result.

I was just working on this very thing in my current story, where one of my characters comes to see another, gets pushed away, but then keeps coming back for another attempt. He needs an overall goal when he enters the interaction initially, and this is related to his fundamental motivators. However, once he leaves the interaction for the first time, those initial motivators won't be enough to get him to go back to it. He needs some new rationale to get himself to re-enter the interaction for the second time, and then the third.

In any case, I hope you find these various approaches to character as interesting and useful as I have. Special thanks again to Nicola Morgan for her post.

25 comments:

  1. Brilliant post! Nicola's questions were too vague for me, just one more list like all the other almost-helpful lists, but now I understand *why* to ask the questions.

    Thanks!

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  2. I see a bunch of questions I'm going to ask the characters in my SF story when I finish this draft. (taking a break from the YA fantasy) I'd do it now, but it'd make me lose the momentum I'm picking up. The characters are going to need beefed up when I get to the revision stage, but for now, it doesn't matter too much that they are somewhat flat. Hooray for a pantsed adventure story!

    It'll be fun to put the characters of my other stories to this interview process as well. Thanks for sharing Nicola's list and your additions.

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  3. Thanks, Deb! I'm glad you found it helpful.

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  4. Megs - Scattered BitsJuly 13, 2010 at 6:12 PM

    I think this is the first list I've ever read that IS helpful to my kind of writing process. What may be helpful here is that it relates directly to story, something I usually develop separately. I know my characters at the levels in here, to themselves, to other characters, to the reader, but that doesn't always translate to creating/weaving a good story.

    Thanks for sharing your comments. I'd read this list before and found it uninspiring, but now I can't wait to try it out.

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  5. I especially like questions 2 and 3 from the original group, and question 11 from your additional questions.

    Like you, I've tried out different character sheets, and also found they weren't helpful for fantasy/other-world characters. Also, they tend to be too specific and detail-oriented. I get bogged down trying to figure out my character's favorite food, shoes, and hair color. Not that those aren't important, but when I'm trying to fix my plot and make sure that my character's decisions and actions are correct for them and their motivations, specific (and somewhat flexible) details are distracting.

    I'm hoping this list will help me sort out the unorganized heap of paper scraps and sticky notes I have for my characters. :)

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  6. Jaleh, I admire you for being able to pants it. I did that with my first ever novel because it was such an experiment, but since then I've become quite the obsessive outliner, lol! I'm glad the questions will help.

    Megs, I agree with you about relating character to story. The two are closely interlinked, and the closer they are, generally the more effective the story becomes. I'm glad you found the list inspiring.

    Ella, I think that fantasy and science fiction characters definitely need their own lists. It's also fine to work your way through your story and decide on little details when they become relevant, rather than trying to hash them out beforehand.

    I'm inspired by all of your comments to do something deeper and more systematic for sf/f characters... let's see what I can come up with.

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  7. I used Juliette's list for the worldbuilding workshop here a while back.

    Reading this new list has started ideas bubbling around in my brain. I now know how I'm going to show-not-tell a significant fact or three about a protagonist by adding only one or two sentences to a work-in-progress novel. :)

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  8. Most of my stories have more outlining, some rather extensively. This is the only one I'm winging so freely. Partly just the type of story it turned out to be. I do have a few vague guidelines for where it's headed, but nothing firmly established. And it all started because of a for-fun writing contest in my crit group with zombies for the theme. I wanted to try it even though I hate zombies (eww gross). No ideas, until with a week remaining, the MC smacked me in the head with a single sentence. I completely missed the deadline, but it's turned into a fun romp, so I don't care.

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  9. Wow! You did it again--killer advice, Juliette. Thanks!

    ... Dario

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  10. Well, I just lost a huge post answering your questions for a character of mine. At least it helped me get a better handle on Miskriila.

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  11. C'nor, I'm sorry you lost your post! Thanks for the comment, and I'm glad you feel you know your character better.

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  12. You're welcome! So am I. In fact, I used Miskriila as a character in a submission for a Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop.

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  13. Thanks so much for posting this, Juliette! Like many of the other commenters, I think this is one of the first interview lists I've found that I can actually use. I especially appreciated your list of setting-related questions--as my story's setting has much to do with my plot, and as I'm just starting out with my character development and want to first establish some background info, I think these questions are going to be really helpful. However, I think Nicola's questions, plus your further insight, will also be useful later on. So again, thank you--I'm going to go check out the rest of your site now. Happy weekend!

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  14. Thanks, J.V.! It's good to see you here. I hope you enjoy the site.

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  15. I have seen soooo many lists, which are thorough but pointless, especially in my post-apocalyptic setting. Well, maybe not pointless, just... snore. Personal is a good way of making it more interesting. There was an article on suite101.com that did similar to this, but with different questions (and very powerful ones at that), and this post reminds me of it; they both stand out as ALIVE. Your post and this other one ask questions, deep probing ones, possibly touching on how your relate to your father. Congratulations: not many character lists do that.

    http://www.suite101.com/content/powerful-fictional-character-questions-a328413#ixzz1AF5OCcqY

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  16. Trying again... (Hopefully I won't lose my answers this time!)

    All answers are written from the point of view of Miskriila.

    1. What is my home like? How do I visualize its boundaries?

    Home is... Complex. The mountains around the city, but also my house, and the city itself, could all qualify. If I had to choose between these, I would say that the mountains and my home are most important. After living for 3000 years, I have seen the city change around me more than once; my home was built with Kaln'Saeeva 2500 years ago and has stayed that way, though with minor improvements. The mountains have been here since I was born, and hold many memories for me, both figuratively and literally.

    2. What weather and physical conditions do I consider normal? What do I fear?

    Snow and ice are normal, and the cold holds no fear for me. I fear strong winds, and any form of earthquake, as much of the city was once destroyed by an avalanche.

    3. What kind of topography did I grow up in, and how did it influence my physical condition and my concepts of comfort?

    That would depend on how one defines "grow up". I was created as an adult, in perfect or near perfect condition, with basic knowledge of the world. As such, I might be said to not have "grown up" at all. However, if you define it as the early period of ones life, I grew up in the mountains, and have maintained by body over the years. I am comfortable talking with friends, sitting in front of a fire reading, or hunting on a Vaedar*.

    4. In what kind of place do I feel most at home? What shapes and textures give me comfort, or discomfort?

    Again, the answer would vary. If speaking in the most general terms possible, then I would most at home in snowy mountains, but if the question refers to cities, then I prefer ones like Kaln'Saeeva - fairly peaceful and self sufficient, but with enough trade to make things interesting. If it's talking about a house, I like something large, with good furnishings, nice tapestries, and plenty of fireplaces. Oh, and since I'm used to worrying about being snowed in year-round, buried by avalanches, or under siege, I tend to keep preserved foods for several years around. I like the feeling of a good chair, or the texture of a saddle under me. The shapes I find comforting are the barren trees, and the peaks of the mountains. I am discomforted by the texture of snow before an avalanche, and the mountains when they are deeply in snow, so that one is almost sure.

    5. Who is in charge here? Do I respect them, fear them, both?

    I am. As such, I respect them, but am otherwise mostly neutral.

    Thus ends part one, due to character count.

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  17. Here begins part two, for the reason above.

    6. How do I show who I am in the way I dress? What is comfortable? Will I endure discomfort for the sake of looking good or looking powerful?

    I show who I am in the way I dress mostly be complete disregard for social conventions if it's comfortable, like wearing hunting clothes to a ball. Comfortable is well fitting clothes, with plenty of room for concealed weapons. I usually wear a sword and light crossbow, in case of assassins, and my clothing is usually discretely armored.

    7. Where do the things I own come from? Do I worry about getting more?

    From my position and, an independent fortune. I don't worry about getting more.

    8. What is delicious to me? What do I consider unworthy of consumption?

    Leishtiir*** meat is my favorite food. I hate white apples, for some reason.

    9. What are my most prized possessions? Do I hoard anything? Do I have so much of anything that I care little if I must give it away?

    My Vaedar, Kalirim-B'riin***, and the contents of my home. I suppose I could be considered to hoard food, but there's a good reason for that. I have enough money that I don't worry about giving away a reasonable amount of it.

    10. Who do I consider to be unlike me? Are their differences charming or alarming?

    The Rotmen and the Cairic-drae. I hate the Rotmen, and the Cairic-Drae**** are a threat to the city as a whole.

    11. Am I in control of my own actions and the happenings around me? What or whom do I believe in?

    Yes, for the most part. The weather can't be controlled, of course, and I can't stop the Cairic-Drae. I believe in Savorla, as she created me.

    *A Vaedar is similar to a horse, but is carnivorous and scaled.
    **Leishtiir are sextapedal birds, with four wings and the mouth of a crocodile.
    ***Kalirim-B'riin is a compound word meaning "Runner of the Heights".
    ****Cairic-Drae is also a compound word, meaning "Servants to Death".

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  18. Interesting, C'nor. I hope you found the exercise illuminating.

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  19. Quite illuminating. I'm glad you found my character interesting! (By the way, if she seems a bit strange, being a 1500 year old avatar of a goddess can do that).

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  20. Hi Juliette,
    Although the article isn't the newest on your page, I just stumbled on it a few days ago.
    I was so impressed by it that I allowed myself to translate the questions and the comments to german (and added some on my own) for my readers to work with them.

    I know, you didn't do the questions on your own, but I give you the credit, because I found them here.
    Thanks a lot!

    Greets Dani

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    1. Oops, I've forgotten to post the link.
      There you go:
      http://ravenport.ch/2012/02/romanfiguren-ausfragen-und-kennenlernen/

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  21. Dani, I'm so glad you felt inspired to translate the article! (I don't mind at all that it's an older one; it's one of my readers' favorites anyway.) Now I wish I knew more German. Thanks!

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  22. Hi Juliette,

    A very late-to-the-party comment!

    One thing that was interesting about some of your own character questions – 6 through 9 in particular – I sensed a presumption that the surroundings the character lives in are generally physically comfortable, or framed in a consumerist society (or a wealthier segment of some other type). Not always the case! For example, in re: 6, not every character will have a closet full of outfits, never mind thinking about dressing for effect. But these questions can illuminate the character's relationship to the physical things that surround them, how luxurious they are or aren't.

    Beth N.

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    1. Beth, thanks for writing in! Actually, the questions were not geared for wealthy surroundings, but meant to be applied to others as well. People do often express identity in how they wear what they wear, even if they don't have a lot of resources or options. I think for example about how people who wear school uniforms (ostensibly quite limited in their possibility for individual expression) change the way they wear them to express individuality, rebellion, etc. How a person defines comfort and how far they are willing to put themselves out for social advancement can be interpreted on a very abstract level, and that was what I intended. Not all of my characters are wealthy or live in comfortable surroundings, but they define comfort even if they can't achieve it, and they manage themselves socially nonetheless. I think you are right to bring up the issue, though, because that interpretation may be the easiest to draw here. Thanks again for the comment!

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