I’ve noticed that a lot of character development advice tends to start with a character questionnaire. I’m sure you’ve seen on before. These questionnaires tend to focus mostly on physical aspects of a character or handful of other distinguishing traits or characteristics. While these questionnaires have some great things to consider, they’ve never done much to spark my imagination. Which is why I came up with questions of my own that did.
I developed this process pretty organically. I learned what I needed to get excited about my characters and truly bring them to life. Now it’s what I use as the basis for ALL of my major characters. I’ve never seen anything that looks like my initial approach online, which is why I’m sharing it with you! Here are the three big areas I think about when I first start to develop a character.
1) What happened to your character before your book starts?
When I first come up with an idea, I tend to have some loose details of what happened to my characters before my book starts. Before I do anything else, I take the time to really develop these thoughts. Most importantly, I want to know what happened in my character’s past that defined them. What shaped them into the person they are at the start of the book?
For example, when I started planning the Raven Files, I knew it was going to be a book about a girl who was kidnapped by an enemy spy agency when she was eight. I also knew she would be eighteen when the book starts. So before I started writing I sat down and thought about what it would be like for my character to be taken from her parents so young, what her training was like, what her life was like at this enemy spy agency, and what some of her defining missions were.
All of this not only gave me a seriously strong sense of my character, but it also got me really excited to think about the story I was planning to tell.
2) Who is your character at the start of the book?
Now that you know what shaped your character’s past, it’s time to think about how those events truly impacted them and made them into the character that they are at the start of your story. Did events of the past traumatize them? Or do they find themselves anxious in certain situations because of something that happened to them? Are the less talkative than they used to be because of an event?
Go through your character’s history and ask yourself how affected your character would be by each of their key life events that happened prior the start of the book. Then ask yourself how your character deals with or shows that impact. Every single event may not have a lasting effect, but finding the ones that do can be key in understanding who your character is at the start of your story. Once you know who they are, you can figure out how they develop.
3) Who do you want your character to be by the end of the book?
I also like to think of this question as, “what should my character to learn by the end?” but that might be too specific for you. The idea is that once you know what you want your character to learn or who you want them to be, you’ll be able to develop a reasonable path to help get them there.
For instance, in the first book of the Raven Files, I knew my main character came from a traumatic environment. She was raised to trust no one and fight for her life on a daily basis. The biggest thing I wanted her to learn by the end of the book was how to trust other people and let other people help her. With that in mind, I was able to plot out a variety of situations where she would first be forced to rely on other people and trust them, and then begin to make the choice to trust them. Knowing where I wanted my character to end up made plotting believable development so much easier than it would have been had I not known where I wanted my character to grow by the end.
I kickstart all of my characters by figuring out these three big questions. I’ve found it not only helps me develop my characters, but it also makes me really eager to write. I hope this helps you as much as it helps me!
Don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter. You’ll get a bi-weekly email with the posts just like this one (plus a handful of email exclusives) delivered directly to your inbox!
Now it’s your turn: What approach do you take when you’re developing new characters? What big questions to do you ask that you’ve found to be really helpful? Let me know in the comments below. You can also let me know what you’d like to see covered more in the future.