By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
Strengthen your characters with these eight questions.
Stories are about characters struggling with a problem, but sometimes, we get so focused on that problem we forget to give our characters the same attention. We treat them like paper dolls acting out our plots, and even though we promise to flesh them out in the next draft, we don’t always keep that promise.
So our drafts end up with weak characters who are there only because they have to be.
The problem with weak characters, is that they lead to weak stories.
Stories that don’t emotionally hook readers. Stories that have little to no tension. Stories that explain a premise, but never dig into why anything in that premise matters to a particular person. They’re yawn-worthy, when we want them to be gasp-worthy.
Just as weak characters lead to weak stories, strong characters lead to strong stories.
Characters with agency drive plots. Characters with conflicted emotions raise tensions. Characters who want things and fear things and care about what they’re doing make readers want and fear and care right along with them.
It’s better for everyone, really.
Before you start your next draft, ask these eight important questions:
1. What are the critical needs of the character?
Those needs are driving and influencing all of your character's decisions, which will make it easier for you to craft a strong story. Look for needs that will help your plot unfold, not just random traits that look good on a character sheet, but don’t really serve the story.
2. What are the critical fears of the character?
Fears are great for creating conflicts and figuring out the right challenges to throw at the protagonist. If you know what scares them, you won't just pick “stuff” to throw in their path, you'll pick problems that will affect them on a deeper level, thus creating a more emotionally resonant scene.
3. Who are the character’s friends?
You can tell a lot about a person by who they hang around with, so what types of people are in your character’s life? What are their key needs and fears? Do they have traits that your character finds appealing or soothing? Annoying or irritating? Be wary of characters who are basically mirror images of your protagonist—if they don’t bring something different to the story, why are they there?
4. Who are the character’s enemies?
And not just the antagonist, but their daily foes. Who they avoid or can't stand says a lot about them, too. Why do they avoid these people? Is it for just cause or did they do something to create that animosity? Characters with shady or shameful pasts might have enemies that suggest that past, or show up to cause trouble.
5. What personality traits help the character? Which ones hurt them?
This is a different take on the old "strengths and weaknesses" question, but the focus is on how these traits work in the story. What does your character do that usually gets them out of trouble or helps them find their way? What do they do that usually backfires, or gets them into trouble? Think about your plot and character arc, and how a character’s trait could affect them, both positively and negatively.
6. What does the character think is fair? Unfair?
This explores their moral beliefs. What have they found in your story that really ticked them off and made them want to act to fix it? (It doesn't have to be your plot, but it's okay if it is). Their sense of justice can be found in how they feel about the situations around them, and what they’re willing to do about it. This can add pressure at the worst possible moment.
7. What does the character like about their friends? Dislike about them?
Not everyone agrees all the time, especially friends. These spots will come up naturally as you write, because you're probably looking for places to add conflict or hash out different ideas to keep the tension up. What opinions have you given your characters without even realizing it? Use these to deepen emotions and add even more layers of conflict.
8. How does the character handle stress?
Some folks are calm under pressure, others fall apart. Since your characters are going to be in some stressful situations, knowing how they react and why can reveal still more about them. Sometimes we naturally react one way, but other times it's because we've had experience or training to handle things—good and bad. And we don't always handle stress well.
By the end of these questions, you should have a much better sense of how your characters tick, how they interact with the people around them, and how they’ll handle the problems of the story.
For stronger stories, create characters worthy of those stories.
Digging a little deeper than the typical “character sheet information” can give you additional tools to craft scenes with layers of conflict and emotion. Multi-layered scenes created story depth, and gives readers a story world they can lose themselves in.
How much character development do you do before you start writing? Do you do the character work first, or in the second (or more) draft?
Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy. When she's not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. Sign up for her newsletter and receive 25 ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now free.
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Excellent advice! Thanks again, Janice.
You're most welcome. Thanks so much for having me!
Great info! Thanks for sharing
Great tips on creating strong characters, which is one of my weaknesses in my writing. Thanks so much, Janice.
Very good advice!! I probably better get the book...
You're welcome, everyone.
Natalie, I'm definitely more of a plot gal myself, and I always have to do extra work on characters on the second pass. I've been working on that this past year, and doing more character work before I write. Hopefully it'll save me from doing an extra revision pass :)
I've always worked out characters with a character sheet that includes much of what you described. I make sure I know the characters' goals, as that can also drive the story.
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