by Christine Hennebury
How well do you know your characters?
Do you know things about them that aren’t actually included in your story?
One side effect of being a storyteller and an actor is that I like to know things about my characters that happen outside of the events described in the story. If I can get a clear sense of what the characters are like, it makes my story richer. If you can get used to the idea of asking yourself (or your characters) more questions about their fictional lives, you will find it easier to work in their world.
I don’t include all of the details that I uncover in my writing. It wouldn’t make for a very interesting story if I inserted every small frustration, things that people had for lunch, or their reaction to a rude person on the elevator. However, the fact that I know those sorts of things in my head, if not on paper, means that I can present more complex characters. I don’t have to show every detail for it to be obvious that these people have lives beyond the events described.
I figure out all of those details by asking myself questions about my characters. These questions have virtually nothing to do with my plot, they are about who those characters truly are. It lets me think about them as real people, and consider how they will react to the world around them. It allows me to consider the impact they have on the world around them. Then I can give their actions more meaning and depth.
There are lots of question list for characters floating around the internet but I like to ask my own. I’m sharing them with you so you can either use them for your work or as a guideline to develop your own ‘backstory’ questions.
Some Nosy Questions
What would your character order in a restaurant? Why would they order that? What kind of restaurant would be? Is there are reason they chose that one? Have they been there before?
What does the situation they are in remind them of? How is it the same? How is it different? What do they wish they could change?
If they could call back up to help with this problem, who would they call? Why? Would it be hard for them to ask for help? Are there specific people that they can ask for help? Are there people they definitely cannot ask? What does it cost them to ask for help?
Once they get through this current situation, what will your character do to relax? Why did they choose that? What have they done in the past? What do they wish they could do?
What’s the most ridiculous thing your character has ever done? Do they try to keep it a secret? Do they regret it? Would they do it over again?
Does your character have a lot of friends? Are they long-term friends or recently acquired?
How does your character feel about their name? Does it fit them or have they always chafed against it? Does anyone call them by a different name?
How does your character wake up in the morning? Are they happy to see a new day or is it more of the same? Are they tired or rested?
What is your character trying to change about themselves? Or do they think that they are perfect? Are they successful at change?
How do they feel about strangers? Do they help people out? Feel responsible for their community? Or do they feel like it is everyone for themselves?
How would they react to casual rudeness? Would they feel it was their fault? Do they blame the rude person? Or would they make excuses for the rude person?
Reflect On Those Answers
Of course, it’s not enough to just give answers to the questions. You have to know what those answers mean for your character. You will want to know why they act or feel the way that they do. You’ll need to consider the impact of their behaviour – if it affects other characters or your storyline.
What does it man that they wake up tired? How is that relevant for your plot? How does that affect their morning interactions?
Perhaps it might seem a bit weird to think of your characters as having lives and motivations outside of your plot. Maybe these questions strike you as odd, or not particularly relevant. However, if you can use questions like these to broaden your perception of the people you are inventing, you will find it easier to place them in new situations, write more detailed scenes, and tell your story effectively.
Christine Hennebury’s storytelling career began when she was four and her parents didn’t believe her tale about water shooting out of her nose onto the couch – they insisted that she had spilled bubble solution from the empty jar in her hand. Luckily, her skills have improved since then. Christine makes up stories, shares stories, and coaches other people who are working on stories, in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Find out more about her at christinehennebury.com or visit her on Facebook .