If you ask someone what sticks with them most after reading a book, the answer is usually the same: The characters.
Reading a novel is not a light endeavor. You’re devoting hours of your life (or days, or longer) to another person’s imagination, investing yourself into their words. Plot carries you through the movements, but the characters are what tie you to the plot in the first place. If the characters are unlikeable or uninteresting, there is simply less reason to care about the plot.
I am very much a character writer. Often- annoyingly often- my characters even dictate where my story goes. My question of ‘Who the hell is in charge here anyway?’ goes unanswered, because, clearly, they are.
Because of this, special care needs to go into crafting your characters. A useful approach is to take them on a date. I’m only half kidding, here. Head out to a coffee shop or your favorite Italian restaurant and get comfy with your latte and a notebook you love.
The tricky part is that it’s more like a blind date than anything. Your good buddy (ie – your imagination) set you up with someone and is really keen on you two getting along swimmingly, even though you know nothing about them. (Don’t worry, your friend is sure you’ll love them.)
What does every blind date in history have in common? The awkward question period, of course. But not just the big ones – one doesn’t shake hands with a stranger then ask if they want to have children. It’s polite to at least know their favorite food before going there.
When you get to know your characters, don’t skip the small stuff. That’s how you end up with the overdramatic smoldering hero who stares at the wall when he isn’t rescuing a damsel. The little things are what turn your characters into interesting people. And let me tell you, I’ve seen some hilarious answers to these questions lead to surprisingly deep character traits.
Without any further ado, here are some questions I like to ask. Give them a try and see how your own characters measure up.
- What’s your favorite outfit? Everyone’s closet is filled with a mix of styles, a comfy pair of trackpants thrown in for good measure. But if you had a choice to wear whatever you wanted, with no judgement, what would it be?
- What music do you listen to? Thrash metal? Poetic folk? Or would you rather crank the Beethoven? A healthy mix of it all is also fun.
- What’s your favorite comfort food? Why? Do Aunt Bermuda’s oatmeal muffins remind you of sitting on her dock in the summer? Sounds delicious.
- What’s your least favorite food? – Funny story here. In a game I was playing a long time ago (set in feudal Japan, by the way), one of the characters answered this question with ‘rice’. Not only did it make for hilarious character interactions, as rice was served at pretty much every meal, but it offered an interesting development to his backstory, with an unloving parent who could never cook it quite right.
- What do you do in your spare time? This is often overlooked, but really important. It fills in details and makes your character a believable person. Being the smoldering hero gets exhausting, after all. Sometimes he just wants to head home and bake a cake.
Now that the niceties are out of the way and the person in front of you has a shape, it’s time to get a little more serious. Interestingly, you’ll notice the answers are different if you’ve gone through the earlier ones first.
- Who are you most loyal to? If it came to a question of loyalties, right or wrong, who would you side with in the end?
- Who do you most respect? Your mentor? Your father? The main character of the book series you’ve read since you were twelve? Why?
- What are you afraid of? Why? Would you face it if you had the chance, or would you run?
- Who is the most important person in the world to you? What’s your relationship with them? What would you do if they died?
- What are your beliefs? Do you follow a religion? If you do, do you truly follow it, or just show up at Easter?
- How do you feel when you look in the mirror? Proud? Content? Can’t meet your reflection’s eyes? Why? What could you have done differently?
All of these are deeply important, giving your characters complexities that will make them memorable and relatable. But in my opinion, there is one question more important than any of the others, painting all the answers into one picture. But this question is impossible to address until you’ve considered the other ones first:
What legacy do you want to leave behind?
I’m always interested in finding new ways to develop my characters, so if you have any other questions you think should be here, please comment below and let me know!
If you take the time to really know your characters, the rest falls into place that much easier, and your readers have the opportunity to meet and become enraptured by the exceptional people you’ve brought into the world.
So next Friday night, try taking your notebook on a date, and just try to not fall in love while you’re there.