When I first started writing fiction (and learning about how to write fiction), I read (and heard) a lot about characters. Most fiction is, after all, character driven. And if you’re going to write really good character-driven fiction, you really need to know your characters well.
There are a lot of character questionnaires you can find online (just Google “character questionnaires”; you’re sure to find something you can use), and many of these contain some good questions covering basic information you need to know about your characters (height, weight, age, hair and eye color, etc.).
But there are very few questionnaires that get to the meat of what makes character-driven fiction really great. Your characters’ physical characteristics are actually not going to affect your story very much at all. This post will introduce you to some questions that will give you some critical character information that is sure to drive the plot of your novel (and that will let you in on which direction it needs to go).
1 – What do you desire/want?
Humans, by nature, are driven by desires and wants. We go to college because we want better jobs. We go to a Chinese restaurant because we want an egg roll. We get married because we don’t want to be alone (and maybe we’re in love), or maybe we want to have sex without facing the wrath of God, or we want to build a family, or maybe we just want a rich spouse.
Your characters are no different. Even though we tend to call them fictional characters, it might be better to think of them in terms of fictional humans. That is, of course, as long as you’re not writing about an alien race. But, even then, it’s fairly likely that your alien race will have some human characteristics, especially regarding desires and wants. That just has to be the case, if your story’s going to go anywhere interesting.
2 – What do you need?
On the surface, this may seem like a similar question to the first one, but it’s really very different. And when I say “need,” I’m not talking about food, water, companionship, and all the basic things everyone needs. I’m talking about the things we need to be whole that we may not even be aware of yet, and this most often stems from something that happened (or didn’t happen) to us in the past.
For example, if your character was raised by an alcoholic single mother, he/she may need a lot of things – certainly the essential, physical needs, but also stronger, less tangible emotional needs, like attention and unconditional love. Someone who has been bullied for most or all his/her life may have a real need to develop and maintain a sense of belonging. Someone who’s shorter than average may need to feel “big,” so they may seek to belittle or victimize others to develop that sense of control.
When you find out what your character needs and wants, you’ll have a better idea of where your character needs to go in the story. And you’ll probably have a better idea of how to answer this next question.
3 – What is preventing you from meeting your needs and/or desires?
The answer to this question is most likely what is going to lead to the ultimate conflict in your story. The things that are fighting against your character are going to make him/her want to fight back. At least, that’s what’s going to happen if your character wants something badly enough.
Good stories have conflict, and the very best stories have really strong conflict. If you answer these questions (or, preferably, have your characters answer them), and then you stick to the answers when you’re writing your story, you’ll be miles ahead of the competition when it comes to character- and story-building.
If you don’t answer these questions, you might still have a good story, but it won’t be the best story it can be. Great stories don’t just happen; great stories are planned. And the greatest stories have really strong characters with really strong needs and desires that drive their story right through the conflict to the resolution.
Want more information about creating awesome characters? Check out this post about the things your characters want you to know.