Tuesday, September 14, 2010

10 Questions to Ask Your Characters

Before I make that first keystroke on any first draft, my heart afire with hope while my brain is screaming "Seriously? You're doing this again?", I get to know my characters. My logic is the better I know them, the better I can write them. Of course, there are always surprises along the way, but having some basic knowledge of each of them makes the journey a great deal smoother.

Here are some examples of questions:

10. How old are you?

9. Where do you live?

8. Are you shy?

7. What are you most afraid of? (this is wonderful information)

6. Are you good with people?

5. What do you do for a living?

4. How observant are you?

3. Do other people's opinions matter to you?

And the two most important...

2. What do you want?

1. How is that different from what you need?

Bonus question:

Why won't you say or do what I want you to do?


  1. I love your bonus question! I think my characters start taking over my writing process sometimes and it makes me frustrated.


  2. Clarissa; I try to show them who's boss. I don't always succeed.

  3. Elspeth - Thanks for these questions! They really do help get characters fleshed out and more real. I also ask my characters how they feel about the other characters in the the story. Sometimes they even tell me.

  4. I love reading questions to characters (and character work sheets). Very clever ways to try and understand your characters. Notice I said try. Your bonus question is one I ask my characters repeatedly...


  5. Margot; The answer to that question also tells me which characters lie. Some do. Sneaky devils.

  6. Jen; I always try to remember what I got taught in theatre school - "What do I say about other people and what do other people say about me?" The answers to that give me the character.

  7. Great questions and love the bonus. My character's answer to that is usually, "Because I can!"

  8. What a great idea, Elspeth! I create and keep updating a character log, but interviewing your characters is a fine idea - thanks for the tip!

  9. I like this, Elspeth! I do interview them - sometimes with alternate hands (dominant for me (as if!) and non-dominant for them) It is interesting to find out what happens. I did it late on in the revision I'm doing to find out what the heck was happening. I don't mind that they do what they want but they could at least tell me! Jeesh. I ask the women what they carry in their purses and the men what's in their bedside table!

  10. That bonus question will get you every time!
    That's a great set of questions to use for an interview. Thanks!

  11. Great questions. I know what would happen if I asked the bonus question. Some would clam up. Some would give me that "friendly" wave. Others would tell me to mind my own business. My characters aren't very nice to me at all. Perhaps I should tighten their leashes.

  12. Great list. I start out with questions but usually after one or two they are happy to go on about themselves. At times I run across a shy one or maybe he/she just likes to mess with me.
    If I learn something later I put it in a section of the notebook. I love reading about them later.

  13. Love that bonus question! I should probably ask those last two, also... I usually get to know my characters by throwing them in a scene and seeing how they act, THEN I give them some attributes that make sense.

    That said, the scene rarely makes the book. It just is sort of how I get a feel for personality.

  14. Your posts are so good, Elspeth. This one reminds me a little bit of the Donald Maass workshop on "The Fire in Fiction" where he told us to imagine the one thing your character would never do, and then make her do it. So ask your characters what things they would never do...


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