When I first started writing, I didn’t care about characters. Characters were just props responsible for advancing the all-important Plot.
Of course, none of those stories made it far beyond the outlining stage and a few disconnected scenes. Turns out characters are the heartbeat of a story, and neglecting them results in a lifeless skeleton.
If you search for how to create a character, you’ll find a lot of lengthy questionnaires covering everything from your character’s nicknames to their least favorite food. I once tried this method of character building. It was…useless.
A lot of the questions just didn’t apply to my setting, or they had zero relevance to the story. An inordinate number focused on physical appearance, which is perhaps the least important aspect of a character. No one actually cares what your characters look like. If you pay attention, you’ll notice a lot of stories don’t even bother to describe their characters.
Think of your best friend. Now change their name and everything about their physical appearance. Would they still be your best friend? Probably, because you still share common interests and you enjoy each other’s personalities. It’s the same with fictional characters. Readers want to get to know them.
A questionnaire can still be a useful tool if it asks the right questions, and that’s what I’m presenting here. This questionnaire cuts straight to the core of your character: what makes them tick, what motivates them, what forms them as a person. As a bonus, these questions all tie directly into your story, providing helpful hooks when writing scenes.
These questions work best when the answers are deep and specific. That means they should come from the character’s core being, rather than the surface, and that you should avoid vague answers that could apply to anyone.
Every category includes a question about manifestations or clues. These are the most practical questions, because their answers will show up directly in your story. They are the windows through which your reader will glimpse the character’s inner workings.
It’s powerful if all your answers connect with each other somehow, but don’t be lazy about it. If a character’s greatest fear is also their most outstanding flaw, and their greatest desire is to avoid their greatest fear, then he comes across as one-dimensional.
Desire is one of your character’s primary motivators. As stated above, avoid surface-level desires. A greedy character may want money, but why? Maybe what they really want is power or security.
- What is the character’s greatest desire?
- What fuels that desire?
- Is there anything the character wouldn’t do to achieve that desire?
- How does that desire manifest itself?
Advanced Tip: While you can pick just one big desire, real people are rarely so straightforward. For instance, the character may think they want one thing while ignoring a deeper, more important desire. It’s especially interesting if the desires conflict with each other.
Fear opposes desire on the motivational spectrum, and is often the more powerful of the two. Stories are often about a character overcoming their greatest fear, and you can often solve problems of how your character would respond in a given scenario by figuring out which direction their fear would drive them. Again, think deep. Phobias like darkness or snakes belong more properly to manifestations or quirks. A good fear might be loss of a loved one or humiliation.
- What is the character’s greatest fear?
- What gave birth to that fear?
- How does that fear manifest itself?
Advanced Tip: As with desire, you can have more than one fear, and these fears can feed or fight each other.
By strength, I mean a character strength rather than a physical or psychological advantage. Is he brave? Compassionate? A natural leader?
- What is the character’s greatest strength?
- Is the character aware of that strength?
- How does that strength manifest itself?
Flaw is opposed to your character’s strength, and once again we’re more concerned with weakness of character rather than weakness of body. An uncontrolled temper, lack of compassion, overconfidence—that sort of thing.
- What is the character’s most outstanding flaw?
- Is the character aware of that flaw?
- Assume you answered yes to the previous question; how would the character justify that flaw?
- How does that flaw manifest itself?
Every character has secrets, but the ones we’re interested in are those with consequences. In other words, the character’s entire arc changes if the secret is revealed. The secret should come with stakes—the character stands to lose something should his secret become known. For even greater drama, give them something to gain as well; this creates conflict.
- What is the character’s biggest secret?
- What would happen if that secret was revealed?
- What clues might reveal that secret?
This is where the character goes from a static list of attributes to an active participant in your story. Draw on your answers to the earlier questions to find natural points of conflict (fear versus desire, whether or not to reveal their secret, etc.). There may be many, but pick the biggest one. This single conflict will form the backbone of your character’s arc.
- What conflict rages inside the character?
- What does the character stand to gain or lose as a result of that conflict?
- What are the outward signs of that inner conflict?
You can think of the quirk as a wild card. A personality trait or mannerism that helps them stand out from the rest of the cast. Unlike the other questions, the quirk can be relatively superficial. But don’t just pick something zany for the sake of being different. Tie it into the rest of the character somehow.
- What is the character’s most distinguishing quirk?
- How did the character develop that quirk?
- How does that quirk manifest itself?
These questions are optional, but they add an advanced layer to your character, and can help when you’re not sure which direction to take them. A theme is like a message you want to convey through the character. If you choose to give your character a theme, it must be consistent with their other attributes. Either draw it out from your answers to the previous questions, or use the theme to find answers you aren’t sure of.
- What is the character’s theme?
- How do the answers to the above questions touch on that theme?
- How does that theme relate to the story’s theme?
Advanced Tip: A character’s quirk can be a great way to showcase their theme.
You’ve established your character’s framework, now it’s time for details. The questions below are just a sample. Feel free to customize them based on your story. The point is to create a cheat sheet you can reference when crafting a scene, something to guide you so your characters don’t end up acting inconsistently. Your answers should be derived from what you’ve already determined above.
- How does the character express themselves in conversation?
- How does the character show affection?
- How does the character handle general conflict?
- How does the character behave in a fight?
- How does the character react to the death of a stranger?
- How does the character react to the death of an acquaintance?
- How does the character react to the death of a loved one?
- How does the character react when faced with their own death?
- How does the character respond to fear?
Take a Meyers-Briggs personality test as your character. I’ve tried this with finished characters and found it to be impressively accurate. You can then use the results to add extra layers of depth to your character and fill in any gaps.