With National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) quickly approaching, I started thinking about story beginnings. One of the things I struggle with at the start of a manuscript is building my characters. I know their voice, but usually other things like their hair color, eye color, mannerisms, elude me. When I first started writing this was a huge problem because even though I knew what the character wanted, I had no background as to why they were driven to desire those things.
After struggling, and getting plenty of feedback on my lack of character detail, I started combing writing sites and reading craft books on how to get to the heart of a character. One of the things I found most helpful were character questionnaires.
At first, I started with the typical things like name, hair color, birthdate, etc. And while an interesting place to start, those details still didn’t help me build the character’s backstory or give me an idea as to why they behaved the way they did.
One particularly frustrating day, I followed a link from social media to the Gotham Writer’s website. There I found a questionnaire that went beyond the common questions and forced me to think about character traits I would have never considered.
Here are a few examples of what pushed me to think beyond the basics for my character:
What is one strong memory that has stuck with your character from childhood? Why is it so powerful and lasting?
Where does your character go when he/she is angry?
What makes your character laugh out loud?
And this one is a little different, but it forced me to think beyond the typical realm…
When your character thinks of their childhood kitchen, what smell does she/he associate with it? Why is the smell so resonant?
Now none of these questions may strike a chord with you, but they forced me to consider all the outside factors that make up a solid character. They’re not, nor can they be, stick figures on the page. In order for the reader to connect to them, they must have both happy and sad memories. People who push their buttons and others who instantly calm them. Reasons for why they hate certain smells and embrace others. Quirky, I know, but if I think back to characters I’ve fallen in love with, I’ve had a connection to some small, odd part of them that has been revealed in the narrative.
What about you writing friends? How do you break down your character? Get to the heart of their stories? Are they already completely shaped in your head, or do you use questionnaires to help build them? Please share your thoughts in the comments and also include links if you have suggestions for sites and/or posts that have helped you create a fully formed character.
Here are some of my go-to sites: