The other week I wrote a guest post about a film that gets away with not developing its protagonist. However, that tends to be the exception to the rule. Normally, it’s a good idea to spend some time developing your characters. You want to know as much as you can about your main and supporting characters and see what makes them tick.
A great way to get started is with a character questionnaire. There are dozens of these on the internet, and I’ve listed a few below. Questionnaires can range for simple characteristics (hair color, favorite song), to detailed life-histories of your characters. I like to scan these forms for questions that gets me excited. It’s always different from character to character, one question might be relevant to my protagonist, while another gets me thinking in a new way about the villain.
Over time, I’ve found that there are a few questions I like to go back to over and over again. For me, these are the ones that cut through the fluff and get to the real guts of my character.
Favorite questions that help to develop character in regards to story and plot:
- What is your character’s controlling belief?
- What is your character’s biggest fear?
- What is your character’s great weakness?
- What does your character need?
- Who is your character hurting at the opening of the story?
- What is your character’s moral need (this will relate to who they are hurting)?
- What is the crisis or problem your character is in at the opening of the story (before the inciting incident or any other events occur)?
- What is the “ghost,” wound, or hole in your character’s heart? (Something that happened in the past that affects their actions today and may or may not be related to their weakness/fear).
- What is your character’s obsession? Why are they obsessed with it?
- What is your character’s external goal?
- What is your character’s self revelation? What do they learn at the end of the story?
- What does your character believe or think they know at the opening of the story?
- How is your character wrong about what they believe at the opening of the story?
- How does the story world reflect your character’s needs, desires, fears, or challenge their weaknesses?
- What is your character’s Inciting Incident? (This is an event that connects need and desire, and jump starts the hero out of paralysis and into action). What would cause them to act?
- Who are your character’s allies? And what do those characters want for themselves?
- Who are your character’s opponents? Who wants to stop the hero from getting what he wants and why? What does the opponent want? Is he/she competing for the same thing?
- What are the opponent’s values and how do they differ from the hero’s?
Favorite questions that help to get to the heart of your character:
- How does your character relate to other human beings? Why?
- What’s his/her relationship with their family (mom, dad, siblings), friends, co-workers?
- What/who does your character love? Why?
- What/who does your character hate? Why?
- What does your character view as his/her greatest failure?
- What does your character view as his/her greatest success?
- In what way does your character feel the world has wronged them?
- What’s your character’s greatest strength? And weakness?
- Who does your character think they are better than?
- Who/what do they think they will never live up to?
- What traits does your character value/respect in others?
- What causes your character shame?
- Who does your character trust?
- What are your character’s religious and political views? And what affect do they have on their actions/way of life?
- If your character could change one thing about themself, what would it be?
- What does your character lie about when they meet other people?
- What’s your character’s motto?
Other fun questionnaires to check out:
One of my on-going word collections is of colors. I love to stop in the paint section of a hardware store and find new names for red or white or yellow. Having a variety of color names at my fingertips helps me to create specificity in my writing. I can paint a more evocative image in my reader’s mind if I describe a character’s hair as the color of rust or carrot-squash, rather than red.
So for fun, I created this color thesaurus for your reference. Of course, there are plenty more color names in the world, so, this is just to get you started.
Fill your stories with a rainbow of images!
One of the ten commandments of writing is that you must develop your characters! And yet, over the weekend, I saw the Robert Redford film All Is Lost, and it breaks this rule unabashedly. In fact, the story is stronger as a result.
How is that possible?!
My discussion of how the film defies character development is on Ellar Cooper’s blog today: Ellar Out Loud. It’s part of a fabulous Dystropian guest-blog series that she’s sponsoring this month, guaranteed to be full of awesome posts on writing and craft. Be sure to check it out!
Read my guest post: Breaking the Rules of Character Development
In a first draft, I find myself wandering about. I meet my characters, explore their world, and force them to tell me everything about themselves (resulting in pages and pages of backstory). But in revision, it’s time to cut through the wandering and get to the guts of the novel. It’s the point where I need to ask myself:
What event really starts this story?
Screenwriting jargon likes to call this the inciting incident. In Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole explains the inciting incident as “the event that takes your character from his sense of normal (life and business as usual) and launches him into the main conflict of your story.”
I like to think of this as the Why Today? question. Why have you decided to start your story on that specific day? What happens on that day that causes your character’s life to change?
In The Hunger Games, the inciting incident is the moment when Katniss’ sister Prim is chosen during the reaping. It’s an event that has inertia, like a snowball rolling down a hill, and forces Katniss into action. It sets the story in motion and changes her life forever.
In Harry Potter, a pretty white owl drops the inciting incident (an invitation to Hogwarts School of Magic) into Harry’s lap, changing his destiny and unveiling a whole new world to him. The film Alien, uses a transmission from an unknown origin to lure the ship’s crew away from their original trajectory, with disastrous results.
The Hero’s Journey terms the inciting incident as the call to adventure: an invitation in Harry Potter, a mysterious transmission in Alien, an unacceptable event that causes Katniss to volunteer for the Hunger Games. All of these happenings “call” to the protagonist and push them to act.
Of course, not all inciting incidents are so blatant. It can be as simple as a chance meeting. When Harry Met Sally’s inciting incident is the title of the film. It’s the moment when Sally’s friend brings her boyfriend Harry with them on a road trip. The film actually jumps in time to five years later after the inciting incident, but without that original meeting, the story wouldn’t exist.
Ask yourself when your character’s life changes? What event sets their story into motion?
As tempting as it is to start your novel with a lot of backstory and set up, you’re probably going to want to hold off and get to the inciting incident as soon as possible. Structurally speaking, this usually comes near the end of a first chapter, or within the first ten minutes of a movie.
Why is an inciting incident so important?
- It’s the kick off the game! It creates the initial energy of your project and starts the plot. Everyone is always waiting for that exciting moment when the game begins. If you wait too long, people might leave before the story even starts.
- It puts your characters to the test and forces them to take action. It reveals what your protagonist values and what he or she is willing to risk.
- It telegraphs to the reader a trajectory for the story and sets up expectations, making them invested participants in the novel. The fun part is that later you get to fulfill or exceed those expectations with your amazing plot twists!
- Rather than wandering aimlessly with a character, an inciting incident informs a reader that they’re in good hands and the author has a plan.
Many of you (like me), might be revising as part of your New Year’s resolutions. As you sit down to slog through your first drafts, look to see if your novel has an inciting incident. Be sure your revision starts there!
Continued reading on inciting incidents:
For example, the idea of revisions after completing a draft is often met with a sinking sense of desperation. Not because we’re afraid to revise, but because it seems like we will never be done. We aren’t afraid of the work, so much as the time it will take to complete the work.
But how much time are we actually talking about?
I’ve started to wonder if our fear is due to the ambiguous nature of how much time we spend on a project. I can guarantee you that a novel that took eight years to write, wasn’t worked on every day. Most of us have full time jobs, families, and other commitments that demand our time. We chip away at our novels when we can find the space to schedule it. But what if the year it took to write a novel, only seems large because we worked on it in small pieces? What if we actually kept track of the time we spent on it?
One of my new year’s resolutions is to keep a writing time sheet. This isn’t glamorous by any means, but I’m finding it really helps to manage my writing expectations. I started this process when I wrote my NaNoWriMo novel. My goal was to find out when I was most productive, but an unexpected byproduct was getting to see the actual hours I spent on the project.
Like a job, I started to see how many hours I actually put into a week. It wasn’t nearly as many as I thought. I also got to see how productive I was during those hours (far more productive!).
At the end of the month, this was my NaNoWriMo weekly breakdown:
- Week One: 8 ½ hours
- Week Two: 10 ¼ hours
- Week Three: 17 ¼ hours
- Week Four: 2 hours
Total Hours: 38 hours
As it turns out, I didn’t even put in a 40-hour week to get to 50,000 words and write my NaNo novel. Wow!
Of course, I could say I spent a month on this project. But in actuality, it was closer to about one work week, spread out over a month. The numbers also break down to about an hour and a half of writing a day, over 30 days.
Not all novels are a manic sprint like NaNoWriMo. In December, I only worked 16 hours on my steampunk novel, and I only have 13,000 words to show for it. But it’s nice to know the exact amount of time I’ve put into it. If I buckle down and write 16 hours a week this month, I’ll probably have a finished draft by the end of it. Plus, 16 hours a week is only 2 ½ hours a day. I could easily put in those hours if I stopped watching TV or surfing facebook!
Time sheets are also great for identifying patterns. I always thought I was a morning writer, but it turns out I’m surprisingly prolific in the hour before bed … if I actually sit down to write.
The point of all of this, is that time isn’t quite so scary if you see how you’re using it. Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to master your craft. How will you know if you’re a master if you don’t keep track of your hours?
I highly suggest keeping a time sheet. You might be amazed and empowered by the patterns you discover.