Fiction writers generally come in two kinds: those who are strong on plot, and those who are strong on characterization. Rarely is a writer brilliant at both. Thus, even if you excel at great story premises, foreshadowing, plot twists, and careful pacing, you may still receive rejections with critiques pointing to ‘two dimensional’ or stereotyped characters; or perhaps it is your main characters’ motivations that are unclear or illogical, which ultimately sabotages the story.
So, you may turn to the instructional books on writing, which often provide ‘character profiles’ or checklists with questions pertaining to your character’s sex, age, race, religion, general appearance and so on. These checklists will help you develop a rough sketch of your character; however, ‘typical’ questions can lead you to develop typical, i.e. boring characters. It’s good to know that your character is a middle-aged white man—this is part of the rough sketch. But to make this man seem real, we need details: Does he horde things or throw them away?; Does he like powdered coffee or espresso?; Does he call his grandmother Nanna or by her first name? What does he sound like when he cries? Filling in with details such as these will turn your rough sketch into a finely drawn portrait.
It’s a good idea to make a list of everything you know about your character, including incidents from her past; how she walks, speaks and dresses; what she eats for dinner. Try to avoid bland statements like ‘she has low self esteem.’ How do you know this about her? How about, ‘her sister constantly belittles her figure in front of their friends, but she never confronts her sister about it; instead she apologizes for her size.’ Now you have something specific and tangible to work with, something personal rather than generic.
Keep in mind that you won’t use every detail you come up with in the actual story, particularly if you are writing short fiction. Knowing a lot about your character, however, will lend depth to his depiction, and will enrich your story regardless of how much you reveal to your readers.
Uncertain about how to begin fleshing out your character? Try starting with these ten questions, choosing one of the options given or creating your own unique answer. Remember, this shouldn’t feel like a high school exam—have fun with it!
1. What would your character say if she suspected someone had just lied to her?
a. “That’s a pile of horse manure.”
d. “I beg your pardon, but I believe you’ve spoken falsely. Why, prey tell, are you attempting to deceive me?”
e. “Wait a minute. Are you sure you’ve got your facts straight?”
f. “You don’t say?”
2. What makes your character laugh?
c. limericks, dirty jokes
d. Monty Python movies
e. his own foibles
f. others’ misfortunes
3. Whom does your character respect the most?
a. Albert Einstein
b. Princess Diana
c. Walt Disney
d. Michael Jordon
e. Oprah Winfrey
f. The Pope
4. What sort of movies does your character watch?
a. romantic comedies
b. horror movies
c. action thrillers
f. black and white
5. Whom does your character most closely resemble?
a. her parent
b. her sibling
c. her grandparent
d. the family pet
e. her favorite movie star
f. a cousin
6. How does your character celebrate New Year’s Eve?
a. by himself, with a bottle of bubbly
b. by himself, with a glass of milk
c. at his ex-lover’s house
d. at a lavish party with a hired escort
e. with his friends, camping on the beach
f. making love to his wife
7. When taking a long road trip, your character prefers to be:
a. in the driver’s seat
b. in the passenger’s seat, navigating
c. in the passenger’s seat, daydreaming
d. in the back seat, sleeping
e. on a bus
8. What smell evokes the strongest memory for your character?
a. hospital antiseptic
b. warm oatmeal cookies
c. Chanel #5
d. moldy leaves
e. shoe polish
f. hot asphalt
9. What’s the last piece of clothing your character bought for himself/herself?
a. an expensive suit/dress
b. rubber boots
c. a terrycloth bathrobe
d. silk underwear
e. a sombrero
f. a ski mask
10. What trivial fault is your character most ashamed of in herself?
a. an addiction to marshmallows
b. an ugly tattoo on her butt
c. an unpaid library fine
d. an insect phobia
e. a speech impediment
f. stealing a toy from her best friend when she was seven