Defining the Characters

There is a post on the Writer’s Digest website written by Brenda Janowicz which offers a different way of defining characters before we bring them to life on the page. She has ten questions for characters.

Brenda Janowitz is the author of Scot on the RocksJack with a Twist, and The Lonely Hearts Club. Her work has also appeared in the New York PostPublisher’s WeeklyLong Island Woman Magazine.

Brenda Janowitz
Brenda Janowicz

“The most important part of your novel is the part that will never be seen by the reader. It’s the part that’s just for you. It’s the part that only you know. Well, you and your character, that is. It’s the character study. You simply cannot write a good novel without knowing your characters inside and out.

There are so many ways to do a character study. It can be a letter your character writes to a friend, it can be a confession your character makes to her shrink, or it can even be a list of things you want to know about her.

Sometimes, when I’m away from my computer, I imagine my character walking around with me. Long line at the drug store? Hmm, how would my character react to that? Friend late for lunch—would my character wait, or just walk out in a huff? Car cut you off in traffic? Would my character yell out loud, or take in it stride?

My wonderful editor, Brenda Copeland, recently sent this great Stephen King quote to me:

“The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.” —Stephen King

I love that quote! So, we cut the backstories. Each and every one of them. And it hurt. Man, did it hurt! But, you know what? Their backstories didn’t change. They just made their way into the narrative in a more organic way. Because of those character studies, I know my characters inside and out, and I think that when an author really knows her characters, truly knows them at their core, that comes out in the writing.

10 questions you need to ask your characters

  1. How old is she? (And how old is she mentally? Is she a 40-year-old in the body of a 16-year-old, or vice versa?)
  2. Did she have a happy childhood? Why/why not?
  3. Past/ present relationships? How did they affect her?
  4. What does she care about?
  5. What is she obsessed with?
  6. Biggest fear?
  7. What is the best thing that ever happened to her? The worst?
  8. Most embarrassing thing that ever happened to her?
  9. Biggest secret?
  10. What is the one word you would use to define her?

What are some of your own questions that you ask yourself when it comes to character? Whar do you think every author needs to know about her characters?”

I think there may be other questions which, depending on the story, may be more relevant to ask. For example:

  • What are his/her character traits which support their role in the story?
  • What’s to like about him/her?
  • What’s to dislike?
  • What is s/he good at?
  • What are his/her weaknesses?
  • What are her/his values in order of importance
  • How does s/he behave when under a lot of pressure (reactive behaviour – which may be the flip side of normal behaviour)
  • Is s/he open to change? What kind of change
  • etc.

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