I don’t like character questionnaires and profiles because knowing things about someone is completely different to knowing someone and if you’re going to follow a character through a story you need to know who they are. Characters navigate the plot by making decisions and acting and it’s important to be able to anticipate what these decisions and actions might be if you want your character to be consistent. But, where do you start to develop a character?
The importance of a character’s backstory, appearance and likes and dislikes differs from story to story and it’s a waste of time exploring these things if they aren’t going to be useful to you or inform your character in any way. To develop a character, it’s better to get to know them as a person, and these questions are going to help you do that.
What needs to happen for your character to consider him or herself at rock bottom and what needs to happen for your character to consider themselves perfectly happy? This is going to tell you what your character strives for in life and what situations they’re likely to avoid so that you, the evil writer, can make it hard for them to get what they want while they struggle with circumstances they don’t want.
What five things does your character value the most? From your character’s values, you can determine what motivates them and what can be put at stake by the central conflict. Motivation and stakes heavily influence the decisions the character will make, which ultimately drives the plot.
How does your character react when their friends or loved ones ignore or tear down these values? This determines to what lengths your character will go to defend their values and if they’re strong enough to motivate the character.
What personal quality is your character most ashamed of? This will help you find your character’s internal conflict by determining their weaknesses and insecurities, which is going to influence the decisions they make.
What is the one thing your character would never do no matter what? Figure this out so that you can all but force them to do it because you’re an evil writer. What would you character do even if they knew it wasn’t a good idea? Make them do it, and then suffer the consequences of their selfishness.
What is your character good at and what is your character terrible at? Your character’s strengths will help them navigate the plot to give them a hope to be able to overcome the central conflict. Without hope, the story is going to be a misery-fest, which ain’t fun. And every complex character needs weaknesses. No one wants to read about someone who’s good at everything.
Does your character like who they are? What do they like about themselves? What do they wish they could change? Find out what they like so you can challenge it, and find out what they wish they could change so you can exploit their insecurities and make them more relatable.
What’s the worst physical pain they’ve ever felt and what’s the worst emotional pain they’ve ever felt? This is going to tell you how likely they are to enter situations that are potentially harmful and how they’re going to react to pain.
Who do they think is above them and who do they think is beneath them? Who would they walk all over and who would they let walk all over them? Wouldn’t it be fun to challenge that? Or even just interesting to see how these feelings can create conflict?
What has been your character’s biggest struggle to date and what has been their biggest achievement to date? While further exploring your character’s values, strengths and weaknesses, this is also going to tell you more about what situations they’re likely to avoid or dive into.
What do they think makes a person good and what do they think makes a person evil? What if they had to do something they think is evil to advance the plot? What if the antagonist starts messing up the protagonist’s worldview by having good characteristics? How’s that for internal conflict?
Is your character more open-minded or narrow-minded? Are they open to change or negotiation or are they so stubborn that they’re going to dive into a situation with false information and screw everything up?
How is their bedroom decorated? Did they decorate it themselves? If they could decorate it differently, how would it look? Are they allowed to or do they express themselves? Do they have a unique style? Do they care about material possessions? Can you take this style or these possessions away from them?
Describe your character’s ideal Saturday. This is going to help you further explore their values, but also tell you what their hobbies might be, giving way to finding their skills, which can be turned into strengths.
Is your character biased or prejudiced towards anyone or anything? Even secretly or shamefully? This will help you further develop their values, but also help you determine their likability and flaws and in what ways they need to change.
Is your character a leader or follower? Are they going to make the plans, or are they more of the brawn of the operation? Are you going to have another character fill the role of the brains, or is your character going to have to struggle with leadership being thrust upon them?
How do they deal with conflict and in what situations might they deal with conflict differently? Conflict happens in a story. It’s what a story is about. You need to know how your character is going to react to that and what kind of conflict they’re more tolerant of.
To what extent do they care what other people think? There’s going to be a time when they do or don’t do something because they care or don’t care what other people think and there’s potential for that to not work out in your character’s favour.
If your character had the power to change a law or policy, what would they change? This is a good indicator of what your character would do with power. Are they going to do something for the greater good or are they a selfish git?
Do they have any memories that make them wince? This is going to tell you what kind of stuff they’re never going to do again because they still remember how embarrassed they were that time that thing happened seven years ago.
Finally, what would your character make a scene in public about, regardless of who was watching? If your character is shy or introverted, then this is going to tell you what they value the most. If your character is just a general loudmouth, you’d better make sure that characterisation is consistent.
Who is this person? How are they going to act in certain circumstances? How are they going to react to certain situations? How are they going to treat other characters? What’s going to help them navigate the plot and what’s going to create a serious sense of self-sabotage? How can they change throughout the story? Why do they do what they do?
The final problem I have with basic questionnaires and profiles is that you can’t necessarily answer these things off the top of your head, and when you do, you run into problems of inconsistency because you don’t know your character’s fundamental values and motivations. The best way to get to develop a character is to write about them. Even if you don’t have a plot, use writing prompts to write about your character, and then fill out these questions as you learn more about who they are as a person. A list of traits doesn’t feel like a person. A character doesn’t feel real until you put them in a scene and make them do something. And that’s how you develop a character.
Click here for writing prompts that will help you develop a character
Click here for the worksheet 30 Questions You Should Ask Your Character.