My first real encounter with character development came when I got into tabletop RPGs (role-playing games; think Dungeons & Dragons). For these types of games you have to create a character that you then navigate through a scenario dictated by someone “running” the game. You roll dice to determine certain statistics for combat and other encounters, otherwise it’s up to you to act out that character – to play that role. Depending on your DM… Do they call it GM now? Either way, I think maybe White Wolf termed it best: Storyteller. Depending on the person telling the story, the game can be very dice-heavy or very role-play intensive. One of the Storytellers I played with favored the latter, which I quickly discovered meant I had to know my character really well. In the beginning, I thought I was good at this… but after our first game, he sat down with me and started asking me questions about my character and what made him tick. Most of these were things I had not considered at all or even considered relevant, but I definitely began playing my characters much better. I realized the details didn’t have to be relevant to the story to help me understand my character. Anyway, it’s an exercise I still use to help me with my writing, so I thought I’d share.
20 Questions for Character Development
1. What kind of books does your character read?
2. Does the character prefer movies, television, music, or reading?
3. What kind of movies or TV shows does the character watch?
4. What is this character’s diet like?
5. Where does the character work? / What does this character study?
6. How does your character get to work/school?
7. Is s/he religious? Does the character follow his or her beliefs to the letter?
8. What is the character insecure about?
9. What does your character look like? Hair? Eyes? Complexion? Style of clothing?
10. Is s/he shy or outgoing?
11. What is this character’s ideal day?
12. What are this character’s pet peeves?
13. What are the character’s hobbies?
14. Does the character have many friends? Who are they? What do they do together?
15. Is this character close with his or her family? How does s/he define family?
16. Where does this character live? What does s/he like and dislike about this place?
17. What is the happiest moment of this character’s life?
18. What is this character’s biggest fear(s)?
19. What is s/he ashamed of?
20. What is your character’s name?
These questions don’t have to be done in any particular order. They don’t all have to be answered, either. Heck, you don’t have to do this exercise! It’s just something that I find helpful to get my mind churning about someone. I have other questions that I ask as well, but these are some I use most frequently. Often times, I follow up the answer to these questions with “Ok; now, why?” and suddenly I’m discovering that my character, Jacob, has a secret talent for mixing drinks but has never considered tending bar because his first girlfriend was so hatefully opposed to alcohol that he has a lingering aversion to it! Unnecessary information, perhaps, but it’s something that affects his fictional life. Most of the time, these answers won’t relate to the plot of a story at all. It’s just a way of getting to know someone a little better so that you can write them better.
Example. If you were to sit down to write a biography about someone, you wouldn’t just sit down and write everything you could think of off the top of your head. You would research that person. You would interview some of their friends or family, if possible. You’d look into their history; not just of their accomplishments, but their complete history including their faults and flaws and past transgressions. You would watch them and make note of their mannerisms; listen to them and make note of their speech cadence. You would know that person inside and out.
Try to do the same for your characters.