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Six Things You Need to Know About Your Characters

I’m sure you’ve seen those lists.  You know the ones I mean.  Those lists of 47 different things you need to know and describe about each of your characters before you start writing, right down to their shoe size and when they last had a haircut.  Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating just a little.  But only a little, mind you.

One such list sits right in front of me. Are there actually writers who fill out the information on such a list for each and every character?  (That seems to me an excellent way to put off the actual writing of your book.) In my opinion, it would leave precious little spontaneity in writing, if you have to figure out the character’s entire life story in advance.

Here’s an idea.  Instead of organizing the person down to the last detail, why not let things come to you as you write. As you finish with one scene, a brilliant “what if” may come to you, if you are not locked tight into a set pattern for your character. I don’t mean you shouldn’t know anything about the persons you are writing about. Here are six very important questions to ask yourself about each main character.  If you know the answers to these six questions, you have a good insight into what makes your character tick.  You can then fill in the minor details as you need them.

1. What is the character’s goal?  What does he want more than anything else?
2. What will happen if the character fails to get what he wants?
3. What is she willing to do to get what she wants?
4. What secret is each character hiding?
5. What is the character afraid of?  (Fear builds tension, shapes action, and changes the story.)
6. What problem must he solve?  How will he solve it?

I’d be very interested to know what you think about using these six questions as opposed to a detailed dossier of the character’s life.

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