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At this point, you should have a basic concept of your main characters.
If you haven’t seen the Character Introduction section of the Roadmap, we highly recommend checking it out to see the guidance on creating and defining the beating heart of your main characters.
In this section we’re going to take those cores and add layers and nuances to ensure each character is completely unique and complex.
To do that, we’re going to use three different angles:
Let’s look at each of the angles in turn.
Each of your characters should sound unique, ideally to the point that the reader would know who was talking just from their dialogue, even if you didn't name the character. Below are some prompts to help develop characters with distinct voices.
How large is this character’s vocabulary? Are there any words they overuse? Do they generally use short words or long words? Do they use a lot of words relating to a particular sense, such as sight or sound? Or relating to their job or hobby?
Speech patterns / habits / quirks
Do they tend to talk in long sentences or short ones? Do they use a lot of questions, or imperative statements? Do they always end a sentence with: ‘don’t you think?’ or ‘innit’ or ‘la’?
How does their educational level affect their speech? More education may mean a more advanced vocabulary, but it could also mean pomposity or the desire to speak more slang to hide their class. Less well-educated people may use simpler language, or they may start to overuse long words in certain company to overcompensate for feeling defensive.
Race / culture / regional influences
Regional influences can affect a character's vocabulary, word order, slang, accent, attitude and priorities.
Do they use a particular kind of slang or jargon? Do they do it to build rapport or to make others feel excluded?
Direct and to the point or oblique and rambling
Does this character get straight to the point in the most clear, concise way possible, or do they beat around the bush – either deliberately because they are anxious or introverted or unknowingly because they just like the sound of their own voice?
Assertive or passive
When dealing with conflict, is the character assertive or passive? Are they forceful, confrontational? Or do they shy away? This will come through in their choice of what to say, but also how they say it.
Proactive, taking charge or reactive and following
Does the character take charge of a situation and use their own agency, or do they wait for others to do something? Perhaps they don’t even follow, but create friction and drag.
Sense of humour
What sort of sense of humour does your character have? Here are a few: laugh-at-life, bonding in the moment, slapstick, bitter sarcasm, self-deprecating, dry/deadpan, highbrow/witty, jokes at others’ expense, toilet humour, quirky cultural references.
What topics colour their metaphors? Do they use a lot of idioms about sport, sailing or the body? What is their profession, background or hobby? Can these be reflected in their metaphorical speech?
The History section is an open section that allows you to put down anything you think is worth noting from your character’s past.
There are many different ways to approach this:
- You could write as a summarised overview, or create detailed in-the-moment descriptions of several of their most formative experiences.
- You could follow them from birth, through infancy, childhood, teenage years, young adult life, mid-life etc. Or you could just focus on a few key events.
- You can write the history as an omniscient narrator, or you may prefer to get into character and tell it from their point of view.
If you’re not sure which way to go, try some out and see what feels like a good fit. And of course you’re not obliged to follow the same method for all the characters. For some you may find yourself writing pages and pages detailing their entire life story, where for others you may write a single scene of a critical event.
Here are a few more prompts to help get your backstory flowing:
What is the character’s defining life event?
Of course we are shaped by multiple experiences, but it can be very powerful if you can come up with a single event that represents how your character came to have the attitude they have now.
For example, Lotso in Toy Story 3 (spoiler alert!) was a perfectly happy, loyal bear until his owner accidentally lost him and subsequently replaced him. This turned him into a bitter, manipulative bully.
In Toy Story 3 this event from his backstory is explicitly shown, but even if the defining event always remains in your knowledge only, it will still make your character feel more real to readers.
What was their childhood like?
Thinking about the influences on the character as a child can be really informative when it comes to understanding why they behave how they do as an adult. Was their childhood a safe place, filled with love and delight? Or was it scary and dark, where they had to fend for themselves? Did they have any friends? A best friend? An imaginary friend?
What person has influenced their life the most?
This could be in a positive or negative way. It could be someone who showed them kindness, who they would like to make proud, or emulate. Or it could be an oppressor. In this case, they vow never to be like that. Or perhaps the conditioning was so strong it has given this character a mean streak.
Of course these are just a few prompt questions. For more ideas browse through the questions on the character questionnaire.
A character questionnaire is a great way to get our brains working in new directions.
Note that a questionnaire is not a good way to start building a character. The questions are too piecemeal, and your character needs to have a more coherent core before you get to this stage.
It also shouldn’t be treated like an exam, where every single question must be answered. A character questionnaire can be much more useful to provide little nudges of inspiration that we can follow down the rabbit hole of our imagination.
Some of these details may lead to interesting twists and layers to your plot.
We can use questions to give us ideas about how we can contrast our characters and create conflict between them.
Or they can help us discover details about their home or work life which will enrich our descriptions and make them feel more three-dimensional to our readers.
Even if the answers you discover have no direct impact on your plot, the information will help round out the character in your mind, and when you write from their perspective - this will come out, whether you notice it or not.
What's in your character's fridge?
Let’s go through an example:
A question about what’s in a character’s fridge could lead to the following ideas:
There’s a box of insulin canisters, a jar of pickles three years out of date, three bottles of mayonnaise (all open), a box of leftover chinese food, a salad bag and seven different types of cheeses.
By taking each of these elements, you could start to build up details from the character’s life:
Box of insulin canisters – it’s not for them, it’s for their cat, who they have such a soft spot for they allowed her to become obese, and now she has to have injections morning and night. So now we know the character has a cat and that first thing in the morning they have to inject the cat. Which gives us a better picture of what their apartment might be like (Cat toys? Cat litter? Smell of cats? Or is all the cat stuff meticulously cleared away?) and also a possible detail for a scene – injecting the cat, which has all kinds of potential for conflict and humour.
A jar of pickles three years out of date, three open bottles of mayonnaise and a box of leftover food: all of this suggests someone who’s slightly disorganised and not particularly into cooking.
However, the salad bag implies they attempt to make an effort every now and then – unless they also have a rabbit as a pet…
And the seven different types of cheese could be because they are actually a connoisseur of cheeses despite other disinterest in food – or maybe the cheeses are a gift from a mother, aunt or friend. In which case that begins to lead us down an alley of what that relative or friend might be like, and the impact they have on this character’s life.
So, you can see that from a simple question about what’s in a character’s fridge, we’re starting to get some hints of their daily routine, lifestyle and even friends and family.
Many of the questions in the character questionnaire are deliberately vague, they are meant to be open to a bit of interpretation.
This sort of work can be quite intensive, so if you notice you’re starting to struggle to come up with interesting answers, take a break and come back to it later.
Another advantage of spreading these out over a little time is to give you a chance to people-watch in between. With the questions fresh in your mind, observe all the people around you - family, friends, colleagues, strangers - watch them all, and see what inspiration you get to supply interesting answers to the questions.
Character Questionnaire Dos and Don’ts
Here are a few do's and don’ts to help you get the most out of this character questionnaire:
- Start by browsing quickly over all of the questions to get a sense of the sections
- Vary how you use the questionnaire depending on the character / the day / your mood
- Pick out the questions that you find work best for you, and use them to create your own personal streamlined questionnaire
- Completely ignore any sections you don't feel are relevant to your character
- Mix it up - one day you might decide to pick 10 questions completely at random. Another day you might decide to complete all the questions in a single section.
- Approach it as a brainstorming exercise
- Allow your mind to go down a rabbit hole, if one question inspires you to write an entire scene from that character's history, then fantastic!
- Understand that your in-depth knowledge of the character will bleed into your writing, even if the vast majority of this information is never written in your manuscript
- Try to answer all of the questions for any given character
- Try to do too many of them in one sitting
- Feel you have to go through the questions in order
- Try to follow a rigid pattern over and over
- Use it to start building a character - you should already have the broad brushstrokes of your character, including what drives them and their biggest flaw
- Use all of the information in your novel - most of the answers should be internalised, not spelled out
In the Novel Factory go to the Character section. Open up each major character and complete as much of the Voice, Backstory and Questionnaire tabs as you feel is right for you.