Have You Created a Character or a Caricature?
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No one wants to read a story about characters who feel like imitations of the people they could have been.
Characters should be well-rounded and fully-developed. In other words, they should feel as real as the people around us. This is a topic we've discussed frequently here at Well-Storied, but strong characterization is too vital to a story's success not to examine it in every way possible. And so today, I'd like to approach the character-creation process from a new angle.
So, writer, if you're ready to ditch paper-thin caricatures and half-hearted attempts at characterization, let's break down the six core questions you need to ask about your characters asap!
Six questions to ask for well-developed characters...
Creating well-developed characters isn't easy, but it can be simple. By asking yourself just six questions, you can cut through the overwhelm of the characterization process and simplify your efforts to bring your characters to life. What are these six simple questions, you ask? Take a look:
Okay, stick with me. You may be thinking that these questions are barely questions — and you're not wrong. These six inquiries aren't the characterization process themselves, but they are the foundations of that process. So how in the world can we use these questions to help us develop living, breathing characters?
By defining a variety of deeper answers within these umbrella questions, we can easily ensure that we've covered all of our character-creation bases. It's truly as simple as that. But what specific questions should we ask as we work to develop our characters? Let's take a look together, writer:
#1: Who is your character?
- What is your character's name?
- How does their name ground them in their time period, reflect their heritage, or otherwise add context or importance to the story?
- What does your character look like? Learn more.
- Do any of their physical attributes affect how they live or how they are treated by others?
- What was your character's upbringing like?
- How has your character's upbringing affected their present life and mindset?
- Who are your character's family members?
- Who has had the most influence on your character's life? How so?
- Who is your character closest to? What are those relationships like?
- Who does your character despise and why?
- What is your character's personality? Learn more.
- How does your character's personality affect their interactions and lifestyle?
- What are some of your character's core beliefs?
- What makes your character happy, sad, angry, annoyed, and so on? Learn more.
- What are your character's greatest hopes, fears, and regrets? Learn more.
#2: What does your character want?
- Is your character unhappy at the beginning of your story? Learn more.
- Why are they unhappy or unsatisfied? What is their everyday life lacking?
- What does your character want more than anything in the world? Learn more.
- What is holding your character back from working to achieve that desire?
- What event or change in circumstance would encourage or force your character to chase down that desire?
- What are your character's family members', friends', and/or co-workers' opinions about your character's desire?
#3: Why does your character want their specific desire?
- Has your character always wanted this desire?
- Was your character forced/coerced into working toward this desire?
- What event or circumstance sparked your character's desire? Learn more.
- Why does your character believe their desire will bring them happiness or satisfaction?
- Does anyone else benefit if your character achieves their desire? How so?
#4: How will your character achieve their desire?
- What steps will your character take to achieve their goal? Learn more.
- Who will help your character achieve their desire? How will they help? Learn more.
- What would make your character give up on their desire?
- What would make your character's helpers stop aiding them?
- What setbacks or challenges might your character face as they work toward their desire?
- What emotional or mental hurdles must your character overcome to achieve their desire?
- How might your character react to challenges and conflicts in their journey?
- How might tension form between your character and their helpers because of your character's desire or method of achieving it?
- What will your character do if they do not achieve their desire?
- How might your character's failure affect their physical and/or mental state?
- How might achieving their desire affect your character's physical and/or mental state?
#5: Where will your character's journey take them?
- Where does your character live when your story begins? Learn more.
- Why do they live in this place?
- What are some key physical and social markers of the place where your character lives?
- How does your character's living situation affect their happiness?
- Will the steps your character takes to achieve their desire lead them to new places?
- What are some key physical and social markers found in these new places?
- How will these new places expand your character's perspective and/or worldview?
- How might these new places provide physical roadblocks your character will have to overcome in order to achieve their desire?
- If your character stays in the same place while working to achieve their desire, how will their journey affect how they view their surroundings?
#6: When will your character be truly happy / satisfied?
- What does your character's idea of true happiness or satisfaction look like?
- If your character fulfills their desire, will they truly be happy or satisfied?
- If not, what does your character need to find true happiness or satisfaction?
- Might your character's idea of happiness or satisfaction change after they achieve their desire?
- Can your character find happiness or satisfaction if they do not achieve their desire?
- Will your character overcome their mental or emotional hurdles? If so, how?
- How will your character's journey draw to a close?
What do these six questions tell us?
Six big questions and infinite tiny answers — and lots of brain-wracking, too! Is all of the hard work you'll put into answering these many questions actually worth the effort? In my experience, absolutely.
From this simple, if arduous, process, you've learned who your character is, what their life is like, why they're unhappy in some way, and what they believe will bring them happiness. You've also begun to build your story's plot, defining key areas of both external and internal conflict and the relationships that will support or antagonize your character throughout their journey.
If these questions don't lend themselves to well-developed characters, I don't know what will. And I hope you feel the same!
Repeat this exercise for all of your story's primary and secondary characters, and I have no doubt you'll develop a full cast of characters that feels far from the paper-thin caricatures they could have been if you hadn't put in the hard work to bring them to life. Rich and compelling characters, here we come!