“I get to know and understand my characters the same way I discover those individuals who come into my life. It’s a mixture of first impressions, concrete factual knowledge, that mysterious “knowing” that comes about when you spend time with a person. Time is the key word,” writes novelist Winifred Madison in our November 1983 issue.
Her 20 questions for any fiction writer – designed to help writers “probe the depths of your characters” – may prove useful for fleshing out your own characters.
20 questions to ask your reader
1. What word (or phrase) pops into your head when you see your character for the first time?
“It may be one word: tyrant, drudge, darling, dreamer, flirt, macho, slob…It may be a phrase, a warning, such as ‘Watch out!'”
2. What words or phrases describe your immediate physical impression of the person?
“The posture, the stance, the stride and rhythm of movement, possibly some body gestures, as well as the bulk and density of the physical build, will immediately give your clues to your character.”
3. Does your character remind you of an animal or a particular object?
“If a comparison happens to come to mind, explore it. Some people definitely resemble birds, cats, rodents, or monkeys, and in the case of inanimate objects such disparate things as a bus, or a feather duster, or a fragile wine glass.”
4. If your character was a color, what color immediately comes to mind?
“We may have the impression of an insistent color, a “brown personality,” or a radiant red-gold, or a dismal blue-gray.
5. What does your character typically wear?
“Often people dress to conform to what they believe is their social status: We all wear uniforms. However, we may be fooled, as individuals sometimes dress according to their fantasies and unconscious or unfulfilled desires – interesting and worthwhile for a fiction writer to explore.”
6. What is your character’s voice and speech typically like?
“How does he use words? What does he say and what does he leave unsaid? As you learn more about this man, you should be able to imitate him, the quality of voice, the expression, suggest the very words he would use.”
7. Where does your character live, and how much of those living circumstances are under his or her control?
“Does he like it? What does it mean to him? Is it possible he wants to leave it and if so, why?”
8. What was your character’s childhood like?
“Where did he live during his childhood? What country?… How has this background shaped his personality? Was anything in particular happening historically?”
9. Who and what (teachers, family members, first loves, hobbies) influenced your character when he or she was younger?
“Here is where you will find many keys to the personality you are studying.”
10. What decade did your character grow up in and how does that time period affect their personality?
“Does the one in which your hero formed his personality influence him in his actions and philosophy? Does he accept the standards of his time or does he rebel?”
11. What does your character want more than anything else?
“Do you know his fantasies, his daydreams?”
12. What is your character’s primary conflict?
“If he has no problem, chances are he won’t be interesting.”
13. What will your character do to get what he or she wants?
“Will he steal, commit a crime or perform an immoral act to achieve his goal? You may hook your reader by getting him to wonder about it along with you.”
14. What is your character’s biggest fear?
“Does that keep him from achieving his ends?”
15. How much does “winning” mean to your character?
“Cards, money, love…how does he handle competition?”
16. How does your character react to animals or other vulnerable characters?
“Would he kick his wife’s dog if she weren’t there to defend it? Would he carry a spider outside rather than kill it when it had kept into his bedroom?”
17. How does your plot affect the character (and how does the character affect the plot)?
How “does he grow or change during the course of the story? If by any chance he remains the same, which should be unlikely, can you explain that?”
18. How does your character interact with your other characters?
“Who acts as his foil? Who contrasts or complements your hero or heroine?”
19. What do you like about your character and what do you not like?
“A person who is completely bad is only slightly less boring that one who is entirely good. Rembrandt used to advise mixing a little darkness in the light areas and a little light in the dark sections of a drawing. The same principle will make your characters more interesting.”
20. Why should the reader care about this character?
“Whether you are writing ‘the Great American novel’ or something more modest, your reader must be touched by your hero or heroine, or you have lost him.”
“‘Digging deeper’ means living with your character day and night,” Madison concludes. “It’s one way of meeting interesting people.”