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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About Sue

From the time, as a young girl, when Sue read the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, she was hooked on fantasy. She loves to read fiction and write within many genres, but she always winds up going back to fantasy. For years she has had fantasy stories spinning around in her head and now that she is retired from many years of teaching, she is putting those stories into book form. She has many interests, including quilting and playing the mountain dulcimer, but writing is the most satisfying of all. Sue lives in the great state of Maine with her husband of 38 years. She has been a factory worker, a waitress, a librarian, and a teacher. Her biggest job was being a mother and she has three grown children. Now that she is a grandmother, she is enjoying that role immensely.

Posted on August 29, 2011, in about writing, Authors - Sue Santore and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Excellent advice. You are so right. If you overplan your characters the fun goes right out of the actual writing of the novel.

  2. And if it’s not fun, what’s the point?

  3. I’ve come back to read this post a couple times, and I must admit, I know both way too much and way too little about my characters. For many of them I have, ahm, you might say, lots of, um, statistical information! And that is admittedly of little use in chronicling their deeds.

    But I can think of three of my very best characters, right off the top of my head, for whom there is really no answer to half of the questions you have down. They are very, very real to me, but I couldn’t tell you, for example, what would happen if Solemn Judgement fails, or what Captain Justin would be willing to do to succeed.

    I will say this- in a book, just like in a play or movie, the only point for coming into a character’s life is to see some kind of conflict. Most of your questions were around that issue, which seems quite correct to me. We can follow a character through moments of peace and quiet, joy and satisfaction, but it’s not very rewarding to spend several pages in a row on it. Characters who meet in the story, even those on the same side, must encounter conflict; either standing together against it or arguing how to go about it. It’s probably different for me with epic fantasy, but there’s very little escape from this.

  4. I think that whatever works best for you is the best way for you. If your people talk to you better if you don’t know all their answers, then go for it.

  5. YES. THOSE QUESTIONS.

    That’s something I learned while taking Holly Lisle’s ‘How to Think Sideways’ course. Changed the way I approached character creation completely. If you know the answers to those questions, you can write your story and write with depth and passion. The details come later!

    • It’s always lovely to meet up with another one of Holly’s students. I took both her long writing courses. Even though I’ve been writing for years, I had my eyes opened to new ideas and was blown away by some of her lessons.

      Here’s a link for those who might be interested in checking out Holly Lisle’s writing courses.

  6. Thanks, Cat. I don’t know why my link to Holly didn’t come through.

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