20 questions to help you build complex characters
Good stories start with three-dimensional characters. It might seem obvious, but the practice of developing characters that have realistic flaws, passions and histories is often overlooked or minimised in fiction-writing classes and ‘how to’ books. You may be given a questionnaire with things like ‘what is your character’s favourite colour/food/holiday destination’ on it, but rarely do these questions delve into the deeper aspects that make up the human psyche.
Ready to get deep? Consider each of the following questions carefully before answering. There are two sections: the first explores the present-day facets of your character, the second delves into their backstory (which should feed into the present). If you get stuck, just think about your own life and history for reference, or perhaps someone you know well.
DEFINING THE PRESENT
1. Find out their results in a personality test.
There are hundreds of free tests on the internet to determine what kind of personality drives an individual’s actions. The most well-known is probably the Myers-Briggs test, but my current favourite is the ‘Positive Intelligence’ test which is centred around the theory of self-sabotage. Once you have taken the test (in character, although I recommend doing it for yourself, too) and determined the top two ‘saboteurs’, you can use these saboteur sub-characters to write scenes; they are especially helpful in moments of conflict or heightened emotion.
2. Where do they work, and how did they end up there?
Are they passionate about their job? What are their long-term career aspirations (if any) and how were those aspirations formed? Think about how their parent’s jobs might factor into their career choices. Were they, for instance, pressured into going into the family business instead of following their dream of becoming a concert pianist?
3. What is their passion in life?
This doesn’t have to be related to their job, and doesn’t have to be something they are talented at. It could be as simple as gardening or cross-stitching or writing haikus. This is the thing that has its own little room in their mind, the thing they enjoy cultivating in their down-time. Think about how it relates to other people in their life. Is their passion something they pursue alone, or do they share it with others?
4. Who is their closest friend?
You can establish so much about a person by observing the people they spend their time with, and delving into the history of your character’s closest friendship/s gives you many clues to what drives them, their capacity for loyalty and level of emotional maturity.
5. What is their romantic situation?
Have they been single for a long time? Settled in a joyless marriage? Are they afraid of commitment or intimacy? Do they casually date, and if so, what type of person are they attracted to?
6. Describe, in as much detail as you can, the place they call home.
Is it messy? Small? Loud? Do they rent or own it? If they still live with their parents, what does their bedroom look like – are there posters on the walls, mouldy plates on the floor, a pet tarantula in the corner?
7. What is the one thing they are really good at?
This could be something known only to them. Maybe they have a wonderful singing voice that no one else has ever heard. Or maybe it’s something they do, out in the open, everyday – like parenting or running a business.
8. What is the one thing they are really bad at?
Think about how this weakness could cause difficulties or embarrassment for them in everyday life. Are they terrible at sex, or maths, or driving? What happened to them in the past to make them so bad at this thing?
9. What are their beliefs/behaviours around money?
Are they frugal, extravagant, rich, poor? How much money is in their bank account and what is their main source of spending?
10. What is their biggest fear, and how do they deal with it?
Do they lie awake thinking about this fear at night, or is it unconscious? How does it drive their behaviour? Again, think about how the fear might crop up in everyday situations, often resulting in conflict or humour.
11. What was/is their relationship with their parents/caregivers?
Go into as much detail as you can about how they were raised. Were their parents neglectful? Loving? Strict? Emotionally absent? Kind? Which parent do they feel closer to, and why?
12. What was their experience of school?
The school experience is usually ripe with memories of trauma and terror (or maybe that’s just me). Was your character popular? Bullied? What were their grades like? How did their time at school shape the person they became?
13. Think about the rest of their family relationships, e.g. siblings and grandparents.
Have they maintained their sibling relationships through their journey to adulthood? If they were an only child, how did this affect them? What life lessons or skills did they learn from their extended family members?
14. What is their earliest memory?
This doesn’t have to be a traumatic memory – it could be as simple as the bars of a crib or the smell of talcum powder.
15. What is their most painful memory?
Painful memories might not seem particularly scarring on the surface, and this can lead to some interesting writing. An event which seemed innocuous for one person may have been devastating for another; think about how this memory impacted your character’s internal experience.
16. Think of three emotionally resonant locations associated with their childhood.
It could be their home, school classroom, the caravan in which they spent their summer holidays, a cupboard they hid inside when their parents were fighting. Use all five senses when painting this picture.
17. Think about the answer to Question 3. How did this passion develop?
And how does it help to define who they are? Did their passion connect them to another person at some point in their life? Or did they use their passion to escape a challenging situation – did their love of Seinfeld develop because they needed a distraction from their abusive home life?
18. Think about the answer to Question 9. How did their upbringing shape their monetary beliefs and behaviours?
If, for instance, your character grew up surrounded by poverty, how does their current life situation reflect this? Did they go in the opposite direction, working hard to become a self-made millionaire, or has their attachment to poverty given them the belief that they don’t ‘deserve’ financial security?
19. Describe their first kiss.
The more awkward and embarrassing, the better (in my opinion).
20. Describe their first sexual experience.
Get into the details and use all five senses. Think about the external pressures they may have been under. Were they pushed into doing things they weren’t comfortable with? Was it a liberating experience, a rebellion against strict parenting or an expression of newly-found freedom?
…how was that? Is your character starting to feel like a ‘real’ person yet?
Remember: it’s important to take your time developing characters in the planning stages of writing. Even if you think you know your character already, it doesn’t hurt to flesh out as much of the detail of their life as possible to avoid stress and confusion later down the line.
Once you have these complexities figured out, the story will write itself.