Author’s Corner: Questions to Ask your Characters

The most important part of your novel is the part that will never be seen by the reader. The part’s just for you … the part that only you know. Well, you and your characters.

The Character Study

There are so many ways to do a character study – a letter your character writes to a friend, a confession your character makes to his therapist, or a list of things you want to know about him. However, you cannot write a good novel without knowing who your characters are, inside out.

Herron sits at a table with his books displayed
Author R.L. Herron

Sometimes, when I’m away from my computer, I imagine one of my characters walking around with me. Long line at the drug store? Hmm, how would my character react to that? Friend late for lunch, would my character wait, or walk out in a huff? If a car cut him off in traffic, would my character yell out loud, or take it in stride?

Some writers like to tackle character studies before writing a single word of the book. For instance, as I’ve mentioned before, I like to start with an idea for each character. Name, age, religion, education, even the sound of their speech pattern. Then I pose a “what if” question and let the character respond for me.

When a dreaded writer’s block inevitably sets in, I’m able to take a step back and think about what I’m writing. I always posit, “what would this character do in this situation?”

There’s no need to step away from my computer. In fact, I find that when I’m blocked, walking away from the keyboard right away is the worst thing I can do. It reinforces the idea that I’m blocked. And writing begets writing, so don’t stop. At least not for long.

Your character studies themselves don’t have to make their way into your work in progress (WIP). In fact, some people think they shouldn’t. However, in both of my current WIP, parts of my character studies made it into the first draft. Since they are both sequels to existing work, I felt it was important to give the reader the back stories on the cast of characters, to fully flesh out all the players.  

However, an author I admire, Stephen King, once said: “The most important things to remember about back story are (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.”

I love that quote!

But, you know what? In my novels, the backstories didn’t change anything; they just made their way into the narrative in an organic way. Because of those original character studies I do, I know my characters inside and out and I think when an author really knows his characters at their core, it comes out in the writing.

10 Questions to Consider

  1. How old is he? True age as well as mental age. (Is he a 40-year-old in the body of a 16-year-old, or vice versa?)
  2. Did he have a happy childhood? Why/why not?
  3. How did any past or present relationships affect him?
  4. What does he care about?
  5. Is he is obsessed with something?
  6. What is his biggest fear?
  7. What is the best thing that ever happened to him? The worst?
  8. The most embarrassing thing?
  9. What is his biggest secret?
  10. If you had to define your character with one word, what would it be?

You can certainly pose some of your own questions to you ask yourself when it comes to character. Just remember, the biggest hurdle is always to make your characters feel more realistic.

One way is to give them flaws, and don’t make things black and white for them. Give them unique appearances, and let them talk like actual people. I can’t stress that enough. I often have a friend or acquaintance in mind (often combinations of more than one) when I develop a character, just to be certain that figure is really clear.

Think of it this way: If the characters aren’t clear to you as the author, how can you ever make anyone else see them?

About R.L. Herron

R.L. Herron, the author of multiple works of fiction, including several Readers' Favorite medal winners, lives and writes in Michigan with his lovely wife, a finally-paid mortgage, and one extremely large cat. His books are all available on Amazon and online with Barnes & Noble. Visit Author R.L. Herron's Website, Broken Glass.

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