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

99 Problems But the Witch Ain’t One

By Mary Pleiss

Wicked Witch of the WestWhen I was a little girl, the witches I knew came from fairy tales. They were old, ugly, and mean–life ruiners who cast evil spells with no provocation. My young friends and I ran into the problem of the witch in our play. We didn’t want to meet a witch in a dark forest or a bright one, even if that forest was the pair of trees in our backyard. Certainly none of us wanted to be the witch. But we knew we had to have a witch. Witches made things happen, provided scary, shivery tension, and gave the good characters something to fight against and overcome.

We often solved this problem by keeping the witch offscreen; we called out plot points detailing the unseen, unheard witch’s actions: “Now the witch is casting her spell. If you get to the swing set, you’re safe!” or, “You stepped into the witch’s clover patch–you’re trapped!” We could imagine the witch without casting her because we’d read stories and seen movies (mostly Disney movies and of course The Wizard of Oz). We knew witches well enough to weave them into our play without having to face the fact that we all had it in ourselves to be witches.

The Witch of Blackbird PondIn sixth grade, I read Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and I started thinking about witches in a different way. What made the people of Wethersfield believe Hannah Tupper and Kit Tyler were witches, when any reader could see they weren’t magical or evil–just a little bit different? Why did their neighbors feel the need to banish or imprison them? If Hannah and Kit weren’t really evil, what did that say about the fairy tale witches I’d always feared and hated?

The witches in our fiction today are very different from those in fairy tales, and it turns out that even the Wicked Witch of the West has more complexity than I realized when I was growing up. I knew her from the movie, but reading the books as an adult, and learning more about the history of the Oz books in particular and witches–and those who were accused of witchcraft–in western culture has witches in a new light. L. Frank Baum was heavily influenced by his mother-in-law, Matilda Gage, who was an historian and feminist who promoted influential theories about women who were called witches in history. Baum had those theories in mind when he populated Oz with witches who were more dimensional than what had come before; they had backstories and motivations, and while some of them were evil, just as many were good.

Since Baum, of course, a number of children’s and YA writers have included witches–and women accused of witchcraft–in their stories. Whether bad, good, or somewhere in between, those witches have developed into characters with more depth and complexity than even Baum could have imagined. As societal attitudes about the roles of girls and women have evolved, fictional characterizations of witches have changed, and we can’t  get away with taking the problematic witch offscreen or making her a one-dimensional villain. Now, when we write about witches, we work to make them as dimensional as all of our other characters, and our problem becomes the same as that we face with most other characters: how do we bring the witch to life?

Here are some suggestions and questions you can ask yourself if you’re including witchy characters in your fiction:

Consider doing some research into historical witches and witchcraft trials. You might find an angle or a detail no one’s ever written about before.

If your witches really do practice magic, is their power individual or communal, or some combination of both? Is magic learned or innate? Can you make witchcraft/magic a source of conflict, rather than a crutch that relieves it?

Does your character need to make choices about her “witchiness”—whether it’s to become a witch, to fully use or curtail her own power, or to educate herself about her power? Against or for whom she will use her power? Will she embrace her power right away, or resist it?

These are, of course, just a start to creating fully realized witch characters, but they’re a way to turn the witch into an integral part of your story, rather than a flat stereotype. Give your readers more to think about when you write witches, so that kids who play pretend will argue over who gets to be the witch, rather than relegating her to an offscreen ghost.

March Dystropia MadnessMary Pleiss: Though some might say all the hours Mary Pleiss spent haunting the library and disappearing into book worlds hinted at her future in writing for middle grade and young adult readers, she confesses that at the time she just thought it was a good way to escape her noisy family (she loves them, really, but six siblings can be a bit much at times). She is a curriculum development specialist, teacher, and recent graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Follow Mary on Twitter: @MKPleiss

This blog post was brought to you as part of the March Dystropian Madness blog series. 

Are You Writing Propaganda?

I was recently reading a book and halfway through it I realized I was reading propaganda! By propaganda, I mean that the author clearly had an idea that he/she wanted to promote with the book and was using the fictional device as a vehicle for that idea. I was simultaneously intrigued and appalled. I was impressed by the author’s ability to pull me into the story and make me feel. But I was appalled by how easily I was manipulated, particularly when I realized the manipulation.

This got me thinking about our authorial agenda as we write.

It’s not uncommon to start a book with a particular idea or point of view in mind. For example you might want to write about teen pregnancy, or school shootings, or true love, or any number of topics that you personally might have an opinion about. And here’s where it gets tricky… we should write about topics that we care about and are interested in. But, the question is: should we force our opinions onto our characters, their lives, and situations? If we do that, are we no longer telling honest stories? Are we instead creating propaganda where our characters become vehicles for our opinions?

I need to take a moment to define propaganda, particularly because it has a strong negative connotation. When we say the word propaganda, it’s easy to think about something “evil,” like war propaganda. We think of lies and rumors and things created with malicious intent. In fact, the dictionary definition reinforces this idea:

Propaganda:  information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc. The deliberate spreading of such information, rumors, etc.

But notice the key words I point out below, particularly in relation to our own intent as writers for children:

Propaganda:  information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group,movement, institution, nation, etc. The deliberate spreading of such information, rumors, etc.

When we focus on just the positive words related to Propaganda we see where propaganda comes from. Ultimately, one probably doesn’t think they’re spreading propaganda, they believe they’re sharing an idea that they think will help others. As adults writing for children, I think we may have a lot of ideas (and agendas) about how to help and influence children, including values and beliefs that we think will make them grow into healthy and happy human beings. It seems like a noble thing to do. Not to mention that literature as a “teaching tool” has a long history in children’s lit. But do we have the kids in mind when we do this, or are we working in service of ourselves and our own beliefs?

I speak from experience when I ask this. Not too long ago I was writing a YA novel about virginity. I wanted my character to not have sex and to realize that abstinence was an okay choice and she was a good person for choosing it. I clearly had an agenda! But you know what…I couldn’t do this book justice. I wrote draft after draft and it never worked. This is because what I wanted my character to do was not what she wanted to do. The issues of my book were much deeper, more complex and fascinating, than I was allowing them to be. I was trying to force my ideals into the book and it became didactic and soul-less in the process.

In a recent lecture at school, one of the faculty members said:

“It’s not our job [as writers] to take sides. If we do we are writing propaganda. It’s our job to advocate for both sides.”

I’ve come to agree with this statement, because the amazing thing is – my story came alive – when I let go of what I wanted to say and let my characters be honest to themselves and direct themselves through the difficult questions and issues that the novel wanted to explore. The story became infinitely more complex, deep, and honest without my meddling little hands on it.

Personally, I search for truth in my writing. That’s my bottom line. Truth. And I don’t think I can find the truth of my story with my agenda in the way. There’s a great quote that goes something to the effect of: “True wisdom is knowing that you know nothing.” And I take this nugget with me when I sit down to write. I may have my opinions, but I don’t know what my character needs. She does and she will tell me. All I can do is advocate for her, and advocate for her antagonists as well, so that she is truly challenged in her beliefs.  And it turns out, that in this writing process, sometime my beliefs get challenged too. But isn’t that what we really want to do with our writing? Don’t we want our readers to think for themselves and decide what they want to agree or disagree with, believe or not believe? Mustn’t we show both sides in order to have them do this?

Here’s some good gut-check questions to see where you stand with your story (and be honest with yourself):

Is there something you want your character to learn in this book? Or is there something you want your reader to learn from this book?

Are you willing to let your book develop and your characters to learn a different truth than you may have set out for when you started writing? If not, why not?

Do you allow your character(s) to make choices or take actions even if they will move the story in a direction other than the one you want it to go in? If not, what are you afraid will happen if they go in a new direction?

Have you ever found yourself forcing your character’s reactions to story events? If so, why does it feel like you’re forcing them?

Have you looked deeply into the other “side” of your story? What’s the point of view that’s the opposite of your protagonist’s? Have you only skimmed the surface or have you given it a chance to try to convince your protagonist that there’s a different way to live her life?

Have you simply let things fall into the camps of good vs. evil?

Do the answers to these questions mean you are writing propaganda? Not necessarily. I mention them only to point out how we – as authors – might be directing our stories more than we should, how we might have blind spots we weren’t aware of, and to explore how there is depth and complexity in some of the opportunities we may not be considering.

One of my current philosophies on writing is that if I want my character to read like a real honest living human being, then I must treat her like one. I must allow her to make her own decisions. I must not judge her if she makes choices that I am opposed to (even morally). I cannot force my character to do anything, and if I do, she’s no longer a human but a pawn of my story. I must do my best to respect, understand, and empathize with my character in order for her to come alive and trust me with her secrets. And I think we should do this for all our characters, even the villains and antagonists.

Truth is not an easy thing to find. But if we put our own agendas and preconceived notions aside and truly follow our characters on their journeys, I think we might have a better chance at finding it together.

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.