Friday, May 26, 2017

Creating a Character, Starting with a Questionnaire

Hello again! In my last post, I said I’d be taking a break. Surprise! Mary Ann explained our schedule shift. As it looks now, I’ll be posting at least once more before our Summer Blogging Break. Although I’m busy with writing (including a new work-for-hire series), sewing reusable shopping bags, and a little bit of gardening (the milkweed is finally coming up--hooray!), I’m enjoying all of these projects. Lucky me!

Bobbi started this series about creating characters with a thoughtful explanation of motivation. Take a moment to explore her process if you haven’t yet. (While you’re looking back, be sure to read Michael Leannah’s four wonderful Wednesday Writing Workouts, one for each week in May.)

When we create a character, we have to decide on a number of traits and behaviors. We explore the character’s history and geography, put ourselves in her shoes and discover her world through her senses, and create conflict based on what she wants. We might base a character on people we know (including ourselves). We can combine traits we admire and dislike. Some writers sketch their characters or find photos that look like what they imagine. Some interview their characters. Some lucky authors hear their characters speaking. I'm always trying to listen!

Several years ago, we Teaching Authors presented at the Illinois Reading Council conference. My part in the presentation included a handout on creating authentic characters. I’ve updated it several times to use it for my writing classes. Here is an excerpt:
Getting to Know Your Character: A Character Traits Exercise
  • Is your character a person or an animal? An actual creature or a mythical or imaginary one?
  • What is your character’s name? Does he or she like it? What would he or she prefer? What does the name mean, and why was it given to the character?
  • How old is he or she? What grade in school is he or she in?
  • What does your character look like? Describe his or her height, weight, hair, eyes, build, and any special or unusual physical characteristics, habits, or actions.
  • How many people are in your character’s family? Who are they, and how old are they? How close are they? What kind of history do they have? What is their financial status?
  • Does your character practice a religion? Which one, and how strictly?
  • Where does he or she live? (City, country, small town, suburb?) What country or what part of the country? What kind of home?
  • What kind of music does your character like? Does he or she play an instrument, sing, or dance?
  • Does your character have a pet? What kind? How does he or she treat it?
  • What does his or her voice sound like? Is it loud or quiet, clear or hard to understand?
  • Does your character play a sport? Which one, how well, and why?
  • What kind of clothes does he or she wear? Why? What would he or she like to wear?
  • What does he or she want? Why? What would happen if he or she didn’t get it?
  • What is he or she good at, both in school and out? What does he or she struggle with? What does he or she like and dislike?
  • Who are your character’s friends? How close are they? What do they have in common?
  • What generation does your character belong to? What period in history? Does he or she fit in?
  • What is your character’s favorite food? Least favorite? Describe his or her eating habits.
  • Does your character have any bad habits? Are they obvious or hidden? Is the character aware of them? How do they affect the character’s relationships with other people?
  • What is your character afraid of? Why? What would happen if his or her worst fear came true?
  • What does he or she carry in a pocket, a purse, or a backpack? What is in his or her desk?
  • Does your character have a secret? What is it? What would happen if the wrong person found out about it?
  • What else do you need to know about your character to tell his or her story?

Intended for authors of fantasy (and useful for all of us), the terrific “FantasyWorldbuilding Questions” by Patricia C. Wrede includes more detailed questions about characters and how they fit into their environments, especially in the “Peoples and Customs” section.

Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup is at Reflections on the Teche. Enjoy!

JoAnn Early Macken


Bobbi Miller said...

O, what a great strategy to get to know your characters! Thank you so much for this inspiration!

Carla Killough McClafferty said...

Excellent, JoAnn.