An external description of your character is not a bad place to start. It’s not essential for your reader to have detail about how your character looks, walks etc. but you should have a pretty clear idea. It’s not just about hair colour, it’s about how they move and speak too.
Most of all, it’s how they feel. Then you know what drives them. Once you know what drives them, they’ll write the story for you.
You are watching your character from afar as they go to work. Describe them leaving whatever transport they use, walking in the street, moving towards their place of work, taking off their outer garments and taking up their place. If they work at home, describe the move from domesticity into whatever it is they do to earn money. Where are the telling details: how they sit, how they feel in their clothes, how aware they are of others around them, how they react to others’ approach?
Try this exercise again, the same place and actions, but this time the character is talking. Let them describe their internal monologue (first person) as this daily process unfolds. Take as long as you like.
Now you’re in the zone, let’s go back to scribble-chat interviews with our character. To start with, imagine you’re getting to know your fictional character as if you’ve just met. By the end, you’re the very best of friends. Please feel free to fill it out as much as you like with musical tastes, what’s in their bag and pockets, where they go on their holidays, favourite biscuits, anything you like. You ask the questions and catch your character’s answers as they speak, on the page:
- How do you look? To yourself? To other people?
- What is your name? Who gave it to you? Have you a nickname? Where did it come from? How do you feel about it?
- Your age? How do you feel about it?
- Where do you live? Why do you live there? How long have you lived there? Do you like it there? Is it your choice or someone else’s? What would you change if you could? Where would you ideally like to live?
- Who do you live with? Describe the relationships and how you feel about them? Why do you live with these people, or alone? Is it by choice? Has it always been that way? Will this story change or challenge that?
- Where were you born? How did you feel about it when you were little? How do you feel about that place now? What accent do you have? Has it always been the same? Are you speaking in your first language?
- Tell me about the family you (the character) were born with: mother, father, siblings and any other family members important to your development and/or the story. Are you youngest or eldest, or where in between? Who is emotionally most remote from you and why? Who worries you most and why? Who do you feel safest with and why? (Yes, this is me up the Cave Hill with my dad!)
- What’s your education? How did you feel about it then? How do you feel about it now? What would you change if you could? Do you have ambitions for more education in your life? Why or why not?
- Do you have a job? Is it your choice? What would be your ideal job? Etc. (Take time to get your character to talk freely about this. We learn a lot about people from their jobs: is it what they want, how did they start there, what was the training, how do they feel about where they work, the people they deal with and the nature of the work itself. There’s an argument that doing a job can fossilise certain aspects of your personality and sometimes that can produce a crisis or neurosis. Whenever you meet people, ask them about their work. People will usually talk about it freely and it’s often where people find life partners. All great material.)
- What’s your economic situation? Has it always been that way? What would you change about it if you could? What are your hopes for the future? How do you feel about it at night when you can’t sleep?
- What is the music you love, your favourite art and other artefacts? Your most prized possession – why?
- What makes you laugh most?
- Any favourite rants?
It’s time to go deeper:
If it hasn’t happened already, let the character speak from now on (on your page or screen) for as long as they want. Good questions come in pairs. Any one of these answers could take a whole day or even a weekend:
- What are the early successes you’re most proud of?
- Your early failures ditto?
- What makes you cry most? (You never cry? Why? Would like you to?)
- What for you is perfect happiness? Perfect misery?
- What is your greatest victory? Greatest defeat?
- Greatest excitement? Greatest boredom?
- Greatest trap? Greatest escape?
- Greatest delight? Greatest fear?
- Greatest happiness and joy? Greatest sadness? Most painful memory?
- Greatest achievement? Greatest loss?
You can develop this in whatever way you like, and feel free to keep going after you’ve started writing your draft.
What are your character’s places:
Home, travel, work, hobbies, favourite place in all the world etc.
Again give your character as long as he or she wants to answer:
- What is your sexual orientation? How do you feel about it?
- Are you now or have you ever been in love?
- What was your first sexual experience?
- What is your most painful memory?
- Your happiest memory?
- Do you have any secrets?
- Do you have someone else’s secret?
- Have you ever been betrayed?
- Have you ever betrayed someone close to you? How do you justify this to yourself?
- What do you most regret NOT having done?
- What would you say is your world view?
Let your character finish these sentences in her/his own words:
- I want …
- I need …
- I regret …
- I love …
- I hate …
Though you might not know it yet, these answers form the engine of your story. Short, snappy answers are truest.
Well done! What a long way you and your character have come. It’s time for a little objectivity …
Sleep on what you’ve done so far. Have a walk, coffee, spend time with friends.
When you’ve left your interviews behind enough to be objective about this person you’ve created, ask yourself these important questions:
- What do I (as author) like about this character?
- What do I (as author) dislike about this character?
Now, having taken a dispassionate look at your character as author, ask yourself:
- What is this character’s greatest anguish, their most significant pain? Expand. This may take you a few long walks to discover, or you may know it in the snap of your fingers.
- Whatever it is, does it explain the aspect you don’t like?
- What does this character actively want in this story?
- What does they actually need?
The answers to these last questions help your plot to come together. Don’t bother to be conscious about this – just keep walking and pondering and what your story needs will come to you.
Incidentally, I found this on twitter – scientists have proved what we writers have known all along: writing is good for us. Have a happy writing week!