How to create characters: 21 questions

Guest author, blogger and screenwriter, Cal Moriarty, is the only European screenwriter chosen for the prestigious Hollywood Blacklist Labs. Her debut novel was described as a ‘wow of a debut’ by The Times.

As a writer there is one thing an audience or reader will remember you for above all else, and that’s your characters, more than any dramatic, shocking, exciting or funny moments you might have created for your characters to experience. And that’s because in novel and screen writing everything comes down to character. Plot is important, of course. So is everything else. But absolutely everything else, plot and all, grows — or should grow — organically from who your character is. Sometimes, it’s the baddies that get all the attention. After all, a great protagonist is only really tested as a character by a great antagonist. My novel The Killing of Bobbi Lomax is written as a dual narrative, albeit third person. One half is my cop character Marty Sinclair and the other is a documents forger by the name of Clark Houseman. I won’t tell you Houseman’s significance in the narrative, but hopefully you’ll think him worthy of his prominence alongside my protagonist.

So, the million-dollar question is how do you create great characters for your screenplay, play, novel, etc.? Instead of banging your head against the wall trying to pluck characters out of nowhere instead think about your own life: about all the people you’ve met, the honourable, dishonourable and somewhere inbetween. What is interesting about them? What made you remember them? These defining characteristics, whether it’s a particular steadfastness or sounding like they’ve swallowed the dictionary, whatever it was something made you remember them. Characteristics, of course, aren’t character, but they can be indicative or revelatory of it. However that particular memorable person’s character was formed (often that can merit an entire novel in itself) you remember what you observed and the impression it made upon you.

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As a writer, you must learn to fill in the blanks between the person you see presented before you and the reality of that person’s life. Essentially, you have to make stuff up about all those people you met and remembered. But keep whatever you’re making up in the tone of the genre you’re writing in. There’s nothing more jarring than reading or watching characters that seem to have been parachuted in from some other novel or movie.

Sometimes people’s situations will be all too evident, for the good or bad. But, as a writer, you must imagine, for instance, the dysfunctional childhood home of the person suffering from OCD, a condition wherein they seek to control some elements of their lives perhaps never having been able to before. Consider carefully how you will reveal the character’s OCD to your audience. Think of Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets. This film could have gone badly wrong, yet it’s a very touching movie. The portrayal is pitch perfect for its genre. It’s not an art-house movie and, therefore, didn’t need a far more introspective portrayal. So, always gauge who your audience will be and pitch your characterizations according to whether you are writing commercially or for a more literary market.

Characters should all be working towards a goal, and that informs their actions throughout the narrative. Their attempt to reach this goal, no matter how small or perhaps ostensibly immaterial to you or me, is how you will create conflict in the narrative, and in the character(s) themselves. The gap between what the characters wants and their needs are where the most interesting aspects of your characters will reveal themselves.

And both want and need are created in really knowing your characters as if they were you.

As their creator you should know far more about your characters than you present on the page, not what the character ate for breakfast on some random Tuesday in their past — not unless the lack of breakfast that day meant their Mum had dropped dead in the kitchen, or some other character defining event. But you should know at least the answers to some of the following — and some of these should be really obvious, but you’d be surprised the things some writers don’t know about the characters they create.

In order to effectively do this, you should know answers to the following 21 questions about your characters. If you are writing younger characters/for a younger audience then some of these may not apply.

21 questions to get to know your characters and keep them interesting

  1. Their name, and how they got it.
  2. Where their parents are from, and why (ie their parents; commercial migrants/refugees etc).
  3. Where they were born and lived. All of it.
  4. Where they went to school, and to what level of education. Did they find that schooling difficult or easy? Did they fit in well whilst there? Did they have many friends, one amazingly very good friend or absolutely no friends whatsoever. Why?
  5. How controlling or strict were their parents? Why?
  6. Was the family religious? Why, or why not?
  7. When did they lose their virginity and to who? And do they lie about it? If so, why?
  8. What were their childhood dreams? Did they realise any of them? Are they likely to? How does this success/failure affect them? What are they actively doing/or have done to realise those goals?
  9. Who was the love of their life and did they marry them? How did they lose them/keep hold of them? Do they regret either of those?
  10. How many kids do they have? How do they feel about that? Do they have a favourite? If so, why?
  11. What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to them? What was their role in this?
  12. What’s the best thing that’s ever happened to them? What was their role in this?
  13. If someone needed help, what would they do? What wouldn’t they do?
  14. If someone stuck a gun in their face, what would they do? What wouldn’t they do?
  15. What do they always carry with them?
  16. What is their most precious belonging, if any?
  17. Have they broken the law? If so, to what extent?
  18. How do they want to die?
  19. What do they do for a day-job?
  20. Who was the last person they slept with? Who do they want to sleep with; AND;
  21. Who is the most important person in their life?

Now, imagine your characters have three people they separately answer these questions in front of 1. Their best friend; 2. Their shrink; and, 3, Their mother. Now how do the answers look?

As their creator you really need to know your characters, inside out to keep them interesting or you will just be writing ‘surface’ characters, ones without any depth at all. And, as readers and audience, we all know that makes for throwaway creations none of us can remember after closing the book or leaving the cinema.

If you can create characters as interesting and memorable as Tony Soprano; Bridget Jones, Jeff Lebowski, Mr Darcy or Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, then you can claim your place among the favourite writers of our time.

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