Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Know Your Character Inside and Out

For an update to this post with additional questions, click to: Designing character interviews that really matter (including genre-inspired questions)

What do you really need to know about your character? There are a lot of lists out there offering possible interview questions that you can use to flesh out a character, but when I look at them, I find they don't help me much. Why? Well, because of the amount of stuff they ask that isn't precisely relevant - at least, not relevant to the characters I use. It's not much help to ask if Allayo or Rulii or the History Keeper like coffee - they've never heard of it, and it would have nothing to do with their stories even if they had!

The other day I ran across some terrific character questions over at Nicola Morgan's blog, Help! I Need a Publisher! The reason these questions are great is that they offer in parentheses a sense of how the question is relevant to story elements - so I'm going to start by commenting on them and then add some of my own.

Please notice I haven't changed the wording of Nicola Morgan's questions. She chose to phrase them as if they were directly asking questions of the character. I approve of this heartily. Many people tend to ask questions about character (and world) in a distant manner, but taking the questions and putting them in personal address form automatically takes you one step closer to finding the voice of your character. Take advantage - answer as if you were the character, and let a simple switch of pronoun put you in your character's head as you get started. Here are the questions, quoted from Nicola Morgan with my own comments in color:

1. What is your worst fear? And your second worst? (Likely to be part of the conflict and tension.) Indeed, this should probably happen during the story.

2. What would you most like people to know about you? (Make sure it's obvious, then.) I'm going to split this one in two:

Part A - What do you want readers to know about you? Seed information like this in character memories, emotional reactions, judgments, or actions.

Part B - What do you want story characters to know about you? This affects how you outwardly represent yourself and the social groups you belong to, for instance in your choice of clothing, speech/interactive style, etc.
3. What would you most like to hide? (Every hero has a flaw.) I think this is related to #2, inasmuch as readers should be aware of these flaws even if story characters are not. The kinds of things we hide are often related to our desire for acceptance in particular social groups, and/or our desire to escape punishment by them. It's reasonable to anticipate that a major character flaw will be revealed or at least cause the protagonist serious trouble in the course of the story.
4. What would you most like to change about your life? (Could be part of the conflict and motivation; could be sub-plot.) I would add, "And how does that affect your current behavior?"

5. Why should we care about you? (Because if we don't, we won't read on.) This is a big one - indeed, a story deal-breaker. If you can't answer this question, your story isn't ready. Period. It's also a show-don't-tell problem... a character shouldn't tell us why we should care. Usually it's a question of having them share their goals and desires with the reader and then showing what will happen if they don't reach those goals.

6. What were you doing before this story started? (This informs your back-story.) I always like to have a fully fleshed back-story including elements of personal history that helped the character get into the position that they are currently in, both physically and emotionally/psychologically.
7. Do people understand you? If not, what do they get wrong? (Makes your character more real because it informs interaction with other characters.) And why? What is it about you that confuses people? Cultural differences perhaps, including different interpretation of manners and behavior? Different moral values? Different language?
8. If I met you for the first time, would I immediately know what you were like or would it take a while to get to know you? (As above.) And does this differ depending upon the type of person you're interacting with? Who has an easy time getting to know you? Who has a hard time? This will relate to questions of what kind of people you trust and what kind you don't.

9. What sort of people like you? Do adults like you? Do boys like you? Do girls like you? Why? Or why not? (Helps place your character within the real world instead of just on the page. It may also inspire some ideas for painting your character richly but subtly.) Keep in mind that distinctions like child/adult, boys/girls might not be the most important. When dealing with another culture, there can be all kinds of distinctions (caste borders, clique borders, subculture borders, institutionally defined roles, etc.) Which social groups are inclined to like you and which are not, and why?
10. Are you happy on your own? (As above.) What does being alone mean to you?
11. What are you going to achieve in my story? (Crucial for plot, since character drives action.) In my mind this is related to the question of why we should care. What do you want to achieve?

12. What trivial but annoying habit do you have? (Makes character more real. Character can show this habit when angry / sad / stressed - helps you show without telling emotion too much.)) To whom is it annoying and why?

13. What trivial but annoying habits do you dislike in other people? (As above.) There are a lot of questions one could pursue on the topic of what a character finds annoying. What constitutes invasion for you? What do you consider dirty? etc.

14. What four (or three or five) adjectives best sum you up? (Helps you remember traits to paint most strongly.) This is a really good place to think about the kind of language your character would use. What qualities does the character's culture define as virtuous? As evil? As unruly or problematic? Try to pick adjectives that imply judgment, such as "incorrigible," "valorous," "ladylike," " etc.
15. Are you going to die in this story? Should you? (Informs plot and interacts with reader's engagement.) I'm not so sure about this one, just because I like to have the character be ignorant of his/her own future. However, it would be interesting to know whether the character wants to die, and how he or she feels about death.
The next set of questions is my own, designed to address specifically the intersection of character and world. Since in sf/f, establishing the nature of the world is a major task that must be accomplished at the same time as introducing the character, why not let your character carry your world in his/her own mind, emotions and judgments? These are the questions - which I phrased as though you were the character asking them of yourself:

1. What is my home like? How do I visualize its boundaries?
2. What weather and physical conditions do I consider normal? What do I fear?
3. What kind of topography did I grow up in, and how did it influence my physical condition and my concepts of comfort?
4. In what kind of place do I feel most at home? What shapes and textures give me comfort, or discomfort?
5. Who is in charge here? Do I respect them, fear them, both?
6. How do I show who I am in the way I dress? What is comfortable? Will I endure discomfort for the sake of looking good or looking powerful?
7. Where do the things I own come from? Do I worry about getting more?
8. What is delicious to me? What do I consider unworthy of consumption?
9. What are my most prized possessions? Do I hoard anything? Do I have so much of anything that I care little if I must give it away?
10. Who do I consider to be unlike me? Are their differences charming or alarming?
11. Am I in control of my own actions and the happenings around me? What or whom do I believe in?

The last thing I want to mention here is character motivation, which I've discussed before but which bears mentioning. Setting up a character's fundamental motivators is very important, but they're a little like a push off the wall in swimming. It'll get your swimmer pretty far, but not all the way to the other side. Each plot event or interaction will change the character's trajectory slightly, and the character's response to events acts like the swimmer's stroke. That additional level of moment-by-moment motivation can drastically change the action and the result.

I was just working on this very thing in my current story, where one of my characters comes to see another, gets pushed away, but then keeps coming back for another attempt. He needs an overall goal when he enters the interaction initially, and this is related to his fundamental motivators. However, once he leaves the interaction for the first time, those initial motivators won't be enough to get him to go back to it. He needs some new rationale to get himself to re-enter the interaction for the second time, and then the third.

In any case, I hope you find these various approaches to character as interesting and useful as I have. Special thanks again to Nicola Morgan for her post.