Character Questionnaire: Getting to the Guts of Character

whoareyouThe 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:

  1. What is your character’s controlling belief?
  2. What is your character’s biggest fear?
  3. What is your character’s great weakness?
  4. What does your character need?
  5. Who is your character hurting at the opening of the story?
  6. What is your character’s moral need (this will relate to who they are hurting)?
  7. 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)?
  8. 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).
  9. What is your character’s obsession? Why are they obsessed with it?
  10. What is your character’s external goal?
  11. What is your character’s self revelation? What do they learn at the end of the story?
  12. What does your character believe or think they know at the opening of the story?
  13. How is your character wrong about what they believe at the opening of the story?
  14. How does the story world reflect your character’s needs, desires, fears, or challenge their weaknesses?
  15. 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?
  16. Who are your character’s allies? And what do those characters want for themselves?
  17. 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?
  18. 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:

  1. How does your character relate to other human beings? Why?
  2. What’s his/her relationship with their family (mom, dad, siblings), friends, co-workers?
  3. What/who does your character love? Why?
  4. What/who does your character hate? Why?
  5. What does your character view as his/her greatest failure?
  6. What does your character view as his/her greatest success?
  7. In what way does your character feel the world has wronged them?
  8. What’s your character’s greatest strength? And weakness?
  9. Who does your character think they are better than?
  10. Who/what do they think they will never live up to?
  11. What traits does your character value/respect in others?
  12. What causes your character shame?
  13. Who does your character trust?
  14. What are your character’s religious and political views? And what affect do they have on their actions/way of life?
  15. If your character could change one thing about themself, what would it be?
  16. What does your character lie about when they meet other people?
  17. What’s your character’s motto?

Other fun questionnaires to check out:

Breaking the Rules of Character Development

All Is Lost PosterOne 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

Perfecting Your YA Voice (Part 2)

In Part 1, Editor Krista Marino explained how YA Voice is related to diction, perspective, dialog, interior monologue, and character. In this second section she explains what makes a young adult voice unique and different from an adult writing voice.

Let’s Talk about the Teen/YA Voice in Particular:

  • YA is specific in terms of voice.
  • YA is teen experience, outlook, and their limited life experiences.
  • YA is about teen beliefs, likes and dislikes, etc.
  • Think about how small your life was when you were a teenager. Remember when you believed in Santa? What did you believe when you were in high school? Did you think you were going to marry your high school boyfriend?
  • An adult looking back on the teen experience is an adult book.
  • “When you’re young everything feels like it’s the end of the world.” – movie quote. Teens have no reference to know that things will get better in their lives, where as adults bring life experiences with them.
  • Teens are not making stupid decisions. They are making their decisions because they have only been on the planet for 16 years and don’t have any life experience.
  • Teens have nothing else to compare their experiences to.
  • When you are writing you need to erase the worldliness you’ve experienced over the years.
  • Your protagonist can’t be simple.
  • Every teen is questioning how other teens view them.
  • Your character must evolve. Voice can change as a character grows and learns over the course of the book. Voice must change with the evolution and movement of the book.

Exercises to Get to Know Your Character:

  • Exercise: List three character traits about your protagonist (i.e. sassy, romantic, uptight) then push yourself to go deeper and find out who they really are under those traits.
  • Exercise: Write two pages that tell you something new about your character. These pages do not need to go into the manuscript. See what they will tell you.
  • Exercise: Go to a public place and eavesdrop on teens. Write down their conversations exactly as you hear them. Now try to use that conversation in a scene you are writing. Watch how your characters interact.

Telling about Character in the Writing:

  • Weave info about your character into the story, but make it invisible.
  • In the writing insinuate how a character looks without listing everything they are wearing. Pick a particular trait to embody a greater image of the character. Example: A character wearing skull rings.
  • You can’t assume the reader knows what is going on inside your character. You need to clue them in. Is the character tired? Excited?
  • Layer your characters actions. Stomping could mean a character is angry, but they could also be embarrassed. Sometimes more is more.
  • It’s better for someone to tell you to cut than add.
  • Beware of too much telling, it will sound like you (the author) are speaking to the reader rather than the character.

Krista Marino is a senior editor at Delacort Press where she edits and acquires young adult and middle grade novels. Books she has edited include King Dork, The Necromancer, The Maze Runner, and The Forest of Hands and Teeth.

Perfecting Your YA Voice (Part 1)

Editor Krista Marino spoke at the 2011 SCBWI LA Conference and shared the following insight on how to perfect your YA voice:

There are Two Types of Voice:

  • Authorial Voice – this is when you know a book is by a certain author. For example you know when you’re reading a John Irving or Meg Cabot book.
  • Narrative Voice – This is the voice invented by the author and the voice of the protagonist.

What is Voice?

  • Voice is illusive and hard to define.
  • Marino’s says voice is made up of: diction, perspective, characterization, and dialog.

Diction as Voice:

  • Diction is vocabulary choices and a style of expression.
  • Think word choice!
  • Marino used an example from The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. She pointed out how the author does not use contractions in the novel to reflect the “old fashioned” sensibility of the town/people, but when a scene started to pick up in pace the author would begin to use contractions (Cannot vx. Can’t).
  • Focus on your character’s distinct vocabulary or expression. This doesn’t mean slang. This will reveal how the protagonist relates to the world.
  • Does your character use cultural references (X-men, animal planet) to define how they relate to the world? This is part of his or her diction.
  • Beware of leaning on cultural references too much for your voice. That will become a crutch. Take a look at Frank Portman’s King Dork as an example of teen voice that feels current without using specific cultural references.

Perspective as Voice:

  • This is the mental view of the character and how it affects the storytelling.
  • This is not point of view.
  • How does the limited teen experience influence how they view the world and the way they speak? For example look at the movies BIG and 17 Again. In Big you have a kid in an adult body. How does this “adult” act and speak to reveal they are really a kid? Or in 17 Again you have an adult in a kid’s body, how does action/speech reveal that they are really an adult with an adult way of thinking?
  • How does the setting (historical fiction or futuristic) change the experiences of your character?

Character as Voice:

  • Voice can convey info about character, age, gender, hobbies, religion, motivation, ambitions, looks, etc.
  • You must know everything about your protagonist.
  • Everything in the book with be filtered through the protagonist.
  • Character driven books are amazing because the character feels real and you (the reader) will follow them anywhere. The secret is to have an amazing character and a plot to sell to a larger audience.
  • Think about the protagonist in your favorite book and write down reasons why you like them. Why did they come to life for you? Was it their speech? Actions?
  • A solid 3D character will come to life and have a believable voice.
  • You need to know your characters and you want to know them emotionally.

Dialog as Voice:

  • This is about the verbal exchange in the book (not interior monologue).
  • Dialog directly reflects a character’s voice and personality.
  • This is about more than just the words.
  • Dialog needs to feel real, not like on a sitcom.
  • Dialog doesn’t exist just hanging there in space. If they just say something but there is no context for it, the reader won’t understand who they are and what they are thinking.

Interior Monologue as Voice:

  • Interior monologue is what the character is thinking and gives context to the dialog.
  • The #1 thing that Krista Marino finds is missing in manuscripts is interior dialog or interior monologue.
  • Interior monologue is important, if not most important to conveying the feelings, reactions, and judgments of your character.
  • Interior monologue shows a character’s perception of a scene and their feelings.
  • Without interior monologue we lose the inner emotional stakes of the scene.
  • All dramatic irony is lost without interior monologue.
  • You need interior monologue to create empathy, rather than having the reader observe and make guesses about the character.
  • You loose back-story, sarcasm, and emotion without interior monologue.
  • We always want to know what a character (on the page) is thinking.

Stay Tuned for Part 2 – Coming Soon!

Krista Marino is a senior editor at Delacort Press where she edits and acquires young adult and middle grade novels. Books she has edited include King Dork, The Necromancer, The Maze Runner, and The Forest of Hands and Teeth.

School, Drool, and Other Daily Disasters

School, Drool, and Other Daily Disasters was the title of author Rachel Vail’s keynote speech at the SCBWI LA 2010 Conference. In it she shared her process, writing for middle grade readers, and how to get inside your characters head. Notes from her speech are as follows:

Why Do We Read?

  • A book is more than a story well told. It needs to have humor and heart.
  • The theme of my writing career has been: What does love require of us?

My Writing Day…

  • Typing
  • Making Tea
  • Wandering around and imagining
  • Making more tea

Books That Really Influenced Vail:

  • Of Mice and Men
  • Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing

What is Middle Grade?

  • Middle grade is the age group of 3rd through 7th graders.
  • Most middle grade books are structured like a one-act play.

What is the Middle Grade Dilemma?

  • Middle grade is the moment you emerge into the world and you discover that your family is weird.
  • It’s when you wonder if there are others out there like you.
  • Life or death moments are a dime a dozen in middle grade. Those feeling knock you down. Your bones ache you are growing so fast.
  • Little kids harbor secrets and worries that adults are not privy to.
  • Being brave is not the same as being fearless.
  • Remember that one somebody who took you seriously when you were a child? (Vail shared a story about her uncle who was the only one who wanted to know the rain cycle, which she had just learned in school and was excited to share with someone).

The Impossible Task of Writing…

  • Writing a book opens a window.
  • Writing a book is like building a sky scraper from the top down. You build, and then tear it down. You build again, and tear it down again.

Getting Inside the Head of Your Character…

  • How do we become someone else? We aren’t all memoirists.
  • Start with what you know.  J.K.Rowling probably didn’t live in a cupboard as a child, but she may have lived in a metaphorical one. I’m sure she knew the loneliness and dreamed of more.
  • Mine and re-purpose. I write for a girl who is like me but not like me.
  • Try speed writing. Write for ten minutes on your dad’s car. Go!
  • Voice sometimes comes later, after many drafts.
  • We have to listen to our characters as much as we do our own kids. It’s just as hard.

Finding Your Story…

  • Michelangelo once said that when he was sculpting he was “chipping away at the stone to find the sculpture inside.” It’s the same thing for writing only we have to barf out our first draft to get a stone.

Great Notes from Rachel Vail’s Breakout Sessions:

Rachel Vail has written over 30 books for kids through teens. Her most recent include her trilogy for teens: Lucky, Gorgeous and Brilliant; and her novel for kids Justin Case: School, Drool, and Other Daily Disasters.

Seeing Your Characters: Creating Adolescent Charaters From the Inside Out

Author of over 30 books, Rachel Vail, has created her own fair share of characters. As an author of young adult, middle grade, and picture books, Vail gave insight on how to create believable adolescent characters for all age groups. The following notes were taken from her breakout session at the 2010 SCBWI LA Conference.

You Are Your Best Source…

  • We often feel like our own lines are boring and obvious. But we are sometimes our own best source of material. Start with what you know.
  • You contain multitudes!
  • If you want, start with your own story. It’s a way in. A way to start writing.

Find a Core Part of Your Character to Guide You…

  • A note Vail left on her computer for herself said “Don’t redeem Morgan.” This was an important point for her character. She didn’t want to redeem the “mean” character. However later, she replaced this note with the word “Shattered.” This seemed a deeper element of the character and why she was mean in the first place.

Writer’s Block is a Character Problem…

  • If you find you are blocked it means you don’t know your character well enough.
  • It could also mean you are avoiding a certain scene that you are afraid to write but the book probably needs you to write.
  • If your character starts to use dialog where they say things like “I don’t even know what I want anymore,” the character is talking to YOU the author. The character lacks motivation and is asking you for some!

Use a “Character Form” to Develop Your Characters…

  • A Character Form is a list of questions you ask your character so you can get to know them better and really understand who they are. These start out simple with what the character looks like and their mannerisms. But you want to be sure to get into more complex questions as well. Some character form question examples are:
  • My name is _____________. Who named her/him? Who are they named after?
  • Character age____________.
  • How do I look? This is a good question to answer in the voice of the character. This is more than the physical appearance. This is the character’s opinion of his/her own appearance. This will really help you to find the character’s voice.
  • I cannot stand….
  • I love my mother, but…
  • My friends are…
  • I wish…
  • If I could change one thing about myself it would be…
  • What is my favorite food?
  • I love to wear…
  • The worst thing I ever did… (this is a great one to help you with plot!)
  • I wish I was more…
  • Don’t panic if your character surprises you when answering these questions. That’s a good thing! That means your character is coming to life.

First Drafts and Brutal Rewriting…

  • The story begins when the main character’s life is thrown off balance. Your job is to re-find balance for your character.
  • A fully developed and realized character is not going to come out in the first draft. It will probably be somewhat boring and cliché. That’s okay. That’s what’s at the front of your head. Draft and re-draft!
  • Astonish yourself! Your first draft is what you know. Re-writing will show you something new.
  • Sometimes the deleting is the most important part of the story.
  • When Edison invented the light bulb, he said he really invented 173 ways to NOT make a light bulb. You’ve got to go through many drafts.
  • See your work with new eyes, again and again. (Re-writing)
  • Don’t fall in love with your words or your characters. They may have to go.
  • Fall in love with your story! Get lost in it, and then be ruthless! Then have some chocolate or scotch.
  • Revise. This is the way to the truth.

Other Notes on Character Development:

  • All the objects in our lives have history. Where did this scarf come from? Who gave you that ring?
  • Young people are growing in plain sight, there is no place for them to hide, no cocoon. It’s hard.
  • If you are not scared, then no bravery is required.
  • 8th grade is the great and horrible year of “Who the Hell am I?!”
  • What does your character NOT say? What is she holding in?
  • Seeing the world through different eyes. That is the challenge of being a writer.
  • Get to know your characters through how they speak.

On Writing For Kids…

  • Be kind. That should be the message.
  • Kids have a built in, shock-proof, BS detector.
  • Kids come to books to find hope.
  • Even if it knocks you around, leave kids with something to hold on to.
  • Kids are constantly evolving, learning, and growing. They aren’t who they were yesterday.

General Writing Tips…

  • As a writer you must have a creative self. But you must also be an independent businessman/woman. That is also your responsibility.
  • Know everything, and then learn more!
  • You are not just what you are, you are what you imagine.

Rachel Vail has written over 30 books for kids through teens. Her most recent include her trilogy for teens: Lucky, Gorgeous and Brilliant; and her novel for kids Justin Case: School, Drool, and Other Daily Disasters.

How Acting Can Help You To Develop Character

Before becoming a writer, author Rachel Vail, studied acting and theater. Today she may not grace the stages of Broadway but her numerous books showcase her ability to “get into character”, or more accurately create them. During her breakout session at the 2010 SCBWI LA Conference she explained how it might be worth your wild to check out an acting class.

Things I Learned About Character From Acting Class:

  • You must know everything about your character. Where were they the moment before the scene you are writing? How did they sleep last night? This will affect the scene and how the character behaves. (This was an acting lesson Vail learned before going on stage).
  • What does your character want? What does your character enter the scene wanting? An actor friend of Vail’s told her that the way in which he keeps scenes fresh night after night of doing the same show is by changing what the character wants as they enter the scene. “Each time I do the show I have different motivations.”
  • As hard as it can be to get into character, it can be just as hard to get out of it.

How Body Language Develops Character:

  • Before I can know a character, I need to know them emotionally and physically.
  • All characters walk from a different part of their body. This is called the center of the body. Some people are centered at the forehead and walk with their heads down. Others are centered from their chests and have a confident walk. Drunks often walk with their shoulders first. How does your character walk and move through space?
  • For a book about a ballerina, Vail learned all about how ballerinas hold themselves (posture, walk, etc.) They often hold their hair back. They don’t cross their legs. These small physical effects changed the whole way in which Vail saw the character.

Rachel Vail has written over 30 books for kids through teens. Her most recent include her trilogy for teens: Lucky, Gorgeous and Brilliant; and her novel for kids Justin Case: School, Drool, and Other Daily Disasters.