In my short career as an editor, I’ve found that one thing a lot of writers struggle with is building characters. I’ve always loved character development and found that one of the most beautiful things about reading is getting to know characters the way you know your friends. But as I started reading and editing more manuscripts, I started to see why: authors love to use characters but don’t always love to know them.
Characters are useful. They help drive the plot, they provide conflict, they help your protagonist achieve his or her goal. But they can’t just be useful, because then they’re just plot devices or objects. In fact, sometimes your characters should struggle against you, against the places you’ve put them or the ways you’ve used them. Sometimes they should speak for themselves.
So here are five ways questions to answer for each character to make sure he or she is more than just a plot device or an object to be achieved. You should be able to answer these questions for every single one of the characters in your book with a speaking role, even a minor one. If you can’t answer these questions, it’s time to take that character back to the drawing board.
1) What does he or she want?
This is the most important question. Kurt Vonnegut once said, ‘Every character should want something, even if it’s just a glass of water.’ By giving a character a goal, something to drive towards, he or she will become a driving factor in the story. Even if all she wants is a glass of water, she’ll take actions and make decisions based on her desire to achieve that glass of water. These goals can be anywhere on the spectrum from tiny to astronomical. One character might want to take over the world (the Brain) while the other one (Pinky) is content as long as he’s with his best friend.
2) What is he or she willing to do to get it?
This will define your character’s system of morality, which is incredibly important, as well as the personal lengths to which he or she will go. Is your character a lying, cheating thief who will do anything to achieve his dream? Or is he a tiptoeing sweetheart who wouldn’t kill a fly even if it were standing between him and his goal? Does your character want to save the city of Athens so badly that she’ll run twenty six miles barefoot to achieve that goal? Or will your character give up en route to achieving her goal and hate herself for it?
3) Why does he or she want it?
This ties in to #5 as well. Character history is incredibly important, and authors have to remember that their characters don’t exist in a vacuum. Why does your character want that glass of water? Is she in a desert? Is she hungover? Has she been attacked by a vampire and needs water to replenish the blood running through her veins? Explaining why your character is seeking her goal will help define her history as well as the world around her.
4) What does he or she expect to gain from achieving this goal?
This might seem like the same question as before, but if you think about it closely, it’s not. The previous question deals with why the character wants to achieve his goal in the present tense. This question asks what the character hopes to gain in the future. Say your character wants to win the poker national championships. Is he doing it for personal glory? For status? For the prize money? If it’s for the money, is it so that he can spend it all on himself? Or so he can use it to pay the medical bills for his ailing wife? The rewards your character hopes to reap from achieving his goal will say a lot about the character himself – his motives, his intentions, his dignity.
5) Where is your character coming from?
Keeping in mind key factors such as education, upbringing, family, and other aspects of personal history will allow you to write deeper, more complex characters. If your character really wants nothing more than to be a star singer, but was mocked and bullied for his vocal talents in elementary school, he might be too afraid to go after his goal. That doesn’t mean his goal doesn’t exist, or that he’s not willing to go through great lengths to get it, but it does give him a new obstacle to overcome – his personal fear. And obstacles, as every author knows, are the key to writing interesting books. Similarly, your character might come from a loving, kind family, which gives her great self-confidence and strength, but makes it harder for her to be independent or self-motivating. When you build a character’s history, complexity and nuance will naturally unfold before you.
These are all fairly simple questions, and I bet you can answer them quickly and easily about yourself. But can you answer them about every character with a speaking role in your book? If you take the time to write out quick, one-sentence answers to each of these questions, or even give a few bullet points about each, your characters will take on newfound depth and personality, and they will make themselves heard on the page without being reduced to objects or plot devices.
I wish I’d known to ask these questions years ago. I’ve done all right with them since, but establishing these things before sitting down to write anything would have made my life much easier. 🙂
I feel that way too! It took us a long time to apply these to our characters, and I feel like, if we had known to ask them in the first place, it would have been a much smoother process. Thanks for commenting!
Characters are people too! Great post. I’ve never consciously asked all five of these questions about my characters, but I think I might have to start. Saving this article.
Thanks! I definitely used these ideas to flesh out our characters in The Sowing, and will be using them to build on all our people in The Reaping. They’re important questions to know and to ask.
Such questions really help a lot in getting the characters clear and well-fleshed out. What I spend most time on is deciding upon the ‘motivation’ of the characters. What is motivating them to do what they are doing or want to do. What is pushing them, or pulling them? Why? How strongly? And as important is deciding what is hindering them, or making it difficult for them, to get what they want to get.