Well-rounded characters are equally as important to a story as the plot. They are what makes a reader feel for what is happening in a story. Character development happens in the story and before it. Before characters are placed into a story, they already have some sort of background. It is helpful to do a little pre-writing with characters before they enter the story so they will stay true and consistent to their unique personalities as you write. They are people, simply fictional. Questionnaires, personality quizzes, drabbles1, and “what if” prompts are helpful ways to create a character background and develop characters before they enter a story. It is important for writers to find methods that suit their writing style because not all writers write the same, so our processes will not look the same either.
Questionnaires can be found online, from short basic lists to in depth long forms. My standard questionnaire looks like this:
- Place of Birth:
- Mother’s Name:
- Father’s Name:
- Physical Description: (eye color, hair color and texture, skin tone/features, notable birthmark if applicable, height, weight)
- Personality/Quirks: (Funny? Melancholy? Sarcastic? Easily angered? Logical?) Emotional? Do they bite their nails when they are nervous? Do they suck in their bottom lip when they are ashamed? When they smile does one corner of their mouth curl up or both? etc.)
- Biggest Fear: (This often helps in driving the plot.)
- Deepest Love: (Thing or person the character can’t live without or means the most to them. Again, this helps with plot.)
This list helps get our characters started. Now we have a reference point. We can keep asking/answering questions to get to know our characters, or we can try “what if” prompts or drabbles. Prompts are fairly simple to find online or we can create our own that relate to our story or are just random. The purpose of these exercises is to discover how our characters react.
Drabbles are typically 100 words long, but can be written until the excerpt is completed. We start by picking a scenario, placing our character into a setting, and writing. Say a character was in town and he sees a young woman struggling to carry enormous bags of groceries to the car. Does he just watch? Is that out of shyness or lack of empathy? Is he running late for something? What if our character is in school or at work and she was blamed for a mistake someone else made? Does she get defensive? Take it personally? What if she actually made the mistake? Does she take chastisement calmly? Is she ashamed? Apologetic? Argumentative? What does her body language say?
Personality quizzes for characters can help keep track of what responses are true to a character’s personality. My go-to personality quiz is 16personalities.com because of the detailed descriptions for each type, such as typical weakness and strengths. The results can help us determine whether our characters are introverted or extroverted. Are they internal thinkers? Verbal thinkers? Sensitive? Confronters? Etc. While personality quizzes are helpful, remember the results are a generalization to whichever type is our character’s result. Our characters, like people, are unique. They might share some general traits but they also react uniquely to the story they are in.
Reactions tell a lot about someone. By answering questionnaires or writing hypothetical scenes, we are watching our characters react. This later helps us gauge reactions in our stories. Our characters’ personalities need to stay true through the entire story. They may not react exactly the same to something at the end of the story as they did in the beginning because they had growth in the story, but basic personality traits do not usually change.
Fleshing out well-rounded characters is my favorite part of story creating. There is something thrilling about a character being so real that they completely capture a person’s affections. I encourage other writers to invest time in shaping characters and continuing to learn how from other writers, articles, and curriculums. Writing is an constant learning process and I am excited to glean from others on elevating our craft. Enjoy exploring your characters’ pasts, guiding them in the moment, and planning their futures.
1 A drabble is a short work of fiction of one hundred words in length. The purpose of the drabble is brevity, testing the author’s ability to express interesting and meaningful ideas in a confined space. (Source: Drabble – Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drabble)