Characters are People, Too

Think of the person you spend the most time with. It might be your dad, your roommate, maybe even the guy you share office space with. Picture them in your mind. Now: what are they wearing? What kind of shoes? What does their voice sound like; their laugh? Do they have a particular smell? What do they need for their 2 p.m. pick-me-up? What is their most grating habit? Quirks? Favorite book or movie? Pet peeves?

Chances are, you can answer all of these questions and more about someone you spend almost every day with. Getting to know them is pretty much inevitable.

It's time to cut the strings and let Pinocchio be a real boy, Geppetto.
It’s time to cut the strings and let Pinocchio be a real boy, Geppetto. (Picture retrieved from IMDb. All rights reserved by Walt Disney Studios)

You should be able to do the exact same thing with your characters. If you treat them like tools on the page, they will come across as two dimensional. If, however, you set aside the notion that you are their puppeteer and invest in learning about them, their depth will show through when you write about them.

Easier said than done.

So then the question at hand is how to bring a character to life. Unfortunately, there isn’t one method that will work for every writer.

What I’ve done over the past few years to bolster my process is to write down all of the facets of character that I want to consider. I’ve written pages upon pages of questions. I’ve also found questionnaires that can be used to look at some deeper parts of them, or details you may not have considered (links to these can be found below). Of course there are questions that aren’t always relevant – chances are the name of their favorite celebrity and the brand of tea they drink won’t come up in your story – but knowing them may enhance your understanding of them.

The habit that I’ve had to train myself into most recently is applying these questions and techniques to more than just my protagonist. Unless you’re telling an extremely unusual tale, there will be more than one person involved. Close friends, allies, lovers, even the antagonist – and while you might not need to know quite as much about these people, they still need well-rounded backstories and personalities, or else the story will fall flat. A villain with inexplicable motivations or a lover who is little more than a “tall, dark, and handsome” cardboard cutout, unless you have a solid reason for them, will show ineptitude as much as a shallow main character. Every character’s choices and actions must make sense (at least to them) and seem authentic.

It can be tedious to go through your character questions multiple times to flesh out each and every important person in your story. Sometimes there are questions that won’t be necessary for everyone; feel free to pick and choose, but remember that the idea of “main characters” shouldn’t always be limited to your protagonist. If they get a lot of page time or are central to the plot, they might qualify.

If your characters are nothing more than narrative puppets, going wherever and doing whatever you tell them, then they cease to be people. You must allow them to make their own choices – or at least write them in such a way that they would make the choice you want them to – in order to appear real on the page.

Here are the links to the two character questionnaires that I’ve found most helpful:
“Questions to Create Character Backstory”: This one is more emotionally focused, digging into your character’s internal processes.
“The Ultimate Character Questionnaire”: This one is actually structured like an interview, asking the questions directly of the character. It is more all-encompassing and delves into backstory. Using your character’s voice to answer them may be an interesting exercise; I tend to ignore the direct questions and answer as the author instead. Whichever you choose, the questions will help you flesh out details that it may not have occurred to you to consider.

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One thought on “Characters are People, Too

  1. I agree that these types of questionnaires can be helpful for writers who are trying to construct three-dimensional characters. Another method is role-playing (which I’ve found is most popular with writers with experience in the entertainment industry): have a conversation with a friend (or, if you’re especially committed, yourself) in guise of the character whose voice and background you’re trying figure out. I don’t use this technique myself, but I know many people who swear by it.

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