Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Three Methods of Character Development

At a request from Reni, I am writing a post on characterisation, and various methods thereof.  I must add that I haven’t yet found a tried-and-tested method which consistently works for me, although that isn’t saying they’ve all failed. It really depends on the character, and the story, and how you’re feeling that day. But here are some methods to try, at any rate. There will quite possibly be more next week, because this post turned out much longer than I intended.

Interviewing your characters

The idea is pretty straight forward – you ask your character a list of questions, and they answer in as much or as little detail as they feel. There are obvious variations – interviewing several characters at once to see how they interact; having one character interview another, and so on. The idea – or so I’ve heard – is that not only will you better understand your character’s personality and interactions, but they’ll also reveal whole tracts of your story to you that you knew nothing about.

Personally, I don’t find this method works at all. I used to use this series of questions:
  1. Who are you? 
  2. What are you?
  3. Where are you?
  4. What are you like?
  5. What do other people think you're like?
  6. Who are your friends?
  7. Who are your enemies?
  8. Why are you here?
  9. How did you get here?
  10. What do you want?
When I first found them I thought they were amazing, but they got tired very quickly, perhaps because they’re simultaneously too broad and too narrow. Where am I? Sitting on my couch in my house. Why am I here?  Because I live here…?

This problem is solved by a more genuinely interview-style interview, where you follow what your character is talking about. However, recently, I’ve found a different problem with the interview method, which appears to be brought on by a lack of imagination: I struggle to imagine a situation in which my characters would be interviewed. Obviously, characters would reveal different things to different people, so I have to know who is interviewing them. And then I have to know why they’re being interviewed, and for some characters, I just can’t think of a good reason. Can you imagine Frodo sitting down for a chat with his local paper? It just doesn’t work.

Personally, I’ve given up on this method of character development. However, if you have a better imagination than me, or a character who can easily be interviewed in a realistic setting, I think it has the potential to be quite effective. The key – like any interview – is to have questions that aren’t so broad you have nothing to say, but that are broad enough to reveal interesting new facts about your characters and your plot.

Extended questionnaires

There are a lot of these floating around on the internet , which can be found by googling things such as  ‘100 things to know about your character’. I could spend all day linking examples, but here is just one:

I find these questionnaires to be scary stuff. I don’t know the most important childhood event that affected me, let alone a character I’ve just come up with. Income, salary, financial situation and socio-economic level? Favourite expletive? Type of car? It is beyond me why anyone would need to know these things. One of my personal favourites, which I’m unable to dredge up, even included blood type. I realise that in some parts of the world asking your blood type is kind of like asking your star sign, but still. The mind boggles.

I can’t imagine a worse way to develop a character than sitting down and answering these questions. And then for the next character. And the next. I would be bored out of my brain. Not only that, but with so many questions, I think one would start ascribing traits to characters, rather than letting happen naturally. For example, by the time I had come down to eye colour – which is quite a way down the unfortunate list I have chosen as an example, at least – I would be going, “I dunno, like, brown or something. KILL ME NOW!!” and my character would never be able to develop as a realistic person who I felt was more than just a list of traits.

Surprisingly, many people seem to find this type of questionnaire incredibly useful. I  have  often encountered forums of gushing praise for their amazing character-development abilities. My only thought is that these could be used for two at least slightly more useful purposes – to keep track of traits that you already know about your characters, or to remind you of things you haven’t thought of. I have never felt the need for the first. I understand the danger of forgetting your character’s eye colour in the middle of a pivotal emotional scene, but forgetting whether they believe in God, or what their favourite saying is? Not so much. On the other hand, if you’ve forgotten altogether to consider whether or not your character is religious, or what they might do on a rainy day, reading over a list like this mightn’t be a bad prompt to fill in gaps in characterisation.

List your characters from one to ten…

I don’t know what these things are actually called, so all I can do is give you an example.

List your characters from one to ten, and then answer the following questions.

  • 4 invites 3 and 8 to dinner at their house. What happens?
  • 9 tries to get 5 to go to a strip club. What happens?
  • 5 needs to stay somewhere other than home for the night. Do they chose 1 or 6?
  • 2 and 7 are making out. 10 walks in. What is their reaction?
  • 3 falls in love with 5. 8 is jealous. What happens?
  • 4 jumps you in a dark alleyway. Who comes to your rescue: 10, 2, or 7?
  • 2 writes a book about his/her life. What is 5’s review of it?
  • 7 kidnaps 2 and demands something from 5 for 2’s release. What is it?
  • 3 has to marry either 8, 4, or 9. Who do they choose?
  • You get to meet either 1 or 6. Who do you chose?
I really enjoy these things. I have a ridiculously huge collection of them that includes everything from Hogwarts to poker games to abandoned children on doorsteps. You have to know a reasonable amount about your characters before you start – at the very least, you need more than just ‘Bob is the protagonist’ – but once you’ve got enough to be able to answer these questions, they’re very helpful. Sometimes you’ll get one – specifically, say, question two – where all you can say is, “No, they don’t,” but most of the time, it can provide an enlightening insight into your character’s personalities and relationships. At any rate, they’re an awful lot of fun, and not half-bad as a procrastination technique. If you want them to be slightly more useful, it’s probably a good idea to find or develop your own list, with less kidnapping and strip-clubs, and something slightly more genre-specific. That way, you may even get some plot – or at least some handy backstory-esque one-shots out of this. Either way, I highly recommend it.


  1. Looking forward to next week... So far you've done all the ones you find not particularly useful. I'm excited for the useful ones.

  2. For the record, your link for extended questionnaires is broken because the nano forums wipe every year.