Character creation: Lose the Lists.
by Words and Chaos
Because people are more than attribute collages.
Creating a character is a seemingly straightforward process, but every writer runs into times where it can be difficult to know how to flesh them out past an initial idea, or sometimes simply where to start. It’s just an unfortunate wall that you run into. Like almost all problems in the 21st century, it’s instinctive to turn to Google, our eternal babysitter, for the answer or some easy inspiration. You come across a lot of lists this way: ‘100,000 questions for characters’. Those lists can seem like incredibly detailed and in depth studies of character and personality – how could they not be: There’s 100,000 questions! That’s more than the MBTI and that other personality quiz you took last Sunday, on Buzzfeed, put together! In actual fact they usually devolve into tedious lists of minutia and quirks that rarely tell you anything important about your characters. What’s the use of knowing who were there parents are, what ice cream brands they like, what their favourite colour is, their national tax number, and so on if it doesn’t provide you with anything you can use?
List like this give the illusion of a fleshed out characters. They don’t actually provide a great deal to draw on – how many of those 100,000 notations will you remember? How much of it will come in handy when you’re writing? You can sink a lot of time into filling out those mammoth lists and it will feel like you have put in a lot of work at the end. Technically you have, and your patience is commendable is nothing else, but not all work is created equal.
The key is picking a few relevant questions and then running with them. Common starter question: Who are their parents? On its own, it’s not a useful question. You can provide names, perhaps a profession, but nothing particularly useful. So from there you could ask, ‘what was their relationship like?’ When you’ve answered that ask ‘why?’ Then you can go from there: If the relationship is good, what would it take to destroy it and how does your character react when their trust is broken? Conversely, if the relationship is bad then what would it take to fix it? If nothing, why not? And you can’t shrug your shoulders or give some piss thin excuse, ‘They just don’t feel like it’. That’s a cop out and it’s not helping you. You don’t have to answer right away, but if you give an answer then you have to give a good one.
Another common question: What are they scared of? On its own, not too useful. It gives you a surface level discomfort to throw at a character. They see a spider on a wall, they scream and attempt to hit it with a wood axe. After you’ve decided what they’re scared of, again ask ‘why?’ ’Why’ is always your go-to question. It gives you more to work with, context, and add depth that can use to expand on the ways you manipulate those fears. What do they do when they’re confronted with their fear? How do they react? Do they curl into a ball? Do they accept their fate in a stoic manner?
This works for all of these questions, fear is just a good example. Other suggestions: What do they do when they like someone? How do they display affection? The same goes for animosity or hatred. What do they do in a confrontation? What kind of drunk are they?
Of course, the most basic of these questions is more or less just the root of your story: What does your character want? More importantly, how are they going to get it? What are they willing to sacrifice to get it? The answer to that doesn’t have to be ‘everything’. It’s both obvious and amateur dramatic. It’s the cookie cutter approach to raising to stakes. It’s like all those overblown antagonists with world conquest or destruction as their aim. It doesn’t make sense most of the time. Just as very few people actually want to destroy or rule the world, very few people are willing to sacrifice everything they have to get what they want. Even if they say they are. The nuance and depth come from putting a limit on what a character is willing to do or sacrifice, and forcing them up against it. Alternatively, they can be use to subvert expectations. If a character claims that they’re willing to give up everything, then one thing to do with that is put them in a situation where they’re not willing to sacrifice as much as they want others to believe, or believed themselves. You can learn as much about a person from what they’re not willing to do as much as what they will.
These follow up questions tell you meaningful things about your character’s state of mind, where they’re likely to put themselves in the world, their expectations of people, what they are likely to respond to and in what way, etc. It’s all about how they approach and act in a given situation, and the reasons for those responses. You don’t need 100,000 of these questions to get a far deeper understanding of your characters than you would by filling out one of these excessive lists. All you have to do is dig past the surface. It takes longer per question, you’ve got to think harder about each one, but you can get more memorable substance from just a few in depth questions, than hundreds of random attributes or lists of adjectives. Characters are like psychological experiment patients. The unethical kind. Put them in a situation, see how they respond. You’ll get more out of it.