How do we create primary characters that are nuanced and complex without being stereotypical, flat, or strange caricatures of themselves? The key is to know them. Like, really know them. And it’s more than knowing things like their favorite sandwich or where they grew up. We have to know what makes them tick. Here are some questions to get you started!
I was talking with a friend of mine a couple of weeks ago who said this about her historical fiction work in progress:
“It feels like a fine line between making my characters into weird caricatures and making them boring. I just want them to come alive as believable people with real foibles and not come across as contrived.”
This was such an eye-opening comment for me. Because, of course, we all want our characters to be believable, interesting, and imperfectly perfect, right? But like she said, it is walking a fine line between too much and not enough. How do we know if our characters are truly believable?
Well, as with most things writing-related, there is not one simple answer. Shocker, I know. Just once I wish there was! But that said, I do have one thing that I think is essential.
In order to write believable characters, you have to believe them. And in order to believe them, you have to know your characters. Like, really know them.
For today, let’s focus just on our protagonist. In a couple of weeks, we’re going to look at the secondary characters. I’m intentionally separating them because I think the layers of understanding are different.
So how do we get to know our protagonist?
I have a set of eight questions and a process by which to answer them. So if you’re sitting at your desk or on the couch, grab a piece of paper and get ready to jot them down! If you’re on the go, come back to this podcast later and take some notes, because this stuff is juicy.
First, the process. I recommend that you answer these questions first by freewriting. Write everything that comes to mind in response, even if you’re not sure if it’s relevant or appropriate. Once you’re done, walk away from it for a while, then come back, maybe during your next writing session. When you come back, read through each sentence you wrote slowly. For each thing you said, dig a layer deeper.
So, for example, let’s say you wrote “Maggie has anxiety and worries about the future.” That’s a great start. Now ask your probing questions. Why does she have anxiety? Where does it come from? Has she always had it? What specifically does she worry will happen in the future? What’s her best and worst case scenario? What will it mean to her if those things happen?
You see what we’re doing here? First we’re dumping all of our initial thoughts out and walking away. Then we’re coming back with a critical eye and asking probing questions about each of our original statements.
Now let’s get to the actual questions you’re going to ask. Ready?
Question #1: Who is this character on the outside?
Question #2: Who is this character on the inside?
Question #3: How did this character get to this point in their life?
Question #4: What does this character want?
Question #5: What does this character believe is standing in their way?
Question #6: What does this character believe will happen if they get the thing they want?
Question #7: What does this character believe will be the worst case scenario if they don’t get it?
Question #8: How does this character need to change in order to evolve?
And here is a quick reminder of the steps of the process for answering each of these questions:
First, free write your answers. Let every idea get onto the page, even if they contradict each other or seem ridiculous. Then walk away.
When you come back, analyze each statement and go even deeper. Ask why, and why again. Edit out things that you don’t think are true.
Writers, in order to put a believable protagonist on the page, you as the writer have to know, understand, and have a deep compassion for them. If you can accomplish that, you will bring your protagonist to life as nuanced and as complex as a living, breathing human. I’ll talk to you next week!