Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, a poorly realized character will ruin your story. Even with the best plot in the world, your novel will struggle to truly connect with its audience if you’re unable to present multi-dimensional characters who behave believably.
One of the great joys of fiction comes from understanding a character’s motivations and desires, and then seeing what happens when they’re put to the test. But in order for this to occur, the author must, at some point, flesh out those characters — most importantly, their motivations. Here are three exercises that can help you do just that.
1. Twenty (or more) questions
As Samantha discussed in this post, asking your characters questions is a great way to get to know every part of them— including and especially their motivations.
These questions don’t have to relate to your plot (in fact, they probably shouldn’t!), and may cover trivial or serious matters. For example, knowing how your characters take their coffee (and why) can be just as revealing as who they voted for.
- Who are your favorite fictional heroes?
- On what occasion do you lie?
- What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
- When and where were you happiest?
For each character, write down your chosen questions on a sheet of paper, and try your best to answer them all. At the very least, this will get you thinking from their perspective; at best, it could provide the key to every single choice they make throughout your story.
You can also ask more symbolic questions to try and grasp the inherent nature of your characters, such as “what kind of pizza topping would they be?” and “what’s the meaning behind their name?” These can be especially helpful if you’re still deciding what their primary character traits should be. Symbolic questions act as a Rorschach test for what you truly believe about your characters, even if you’re having trouble articulating it on the page.
2. Moral quandaries
You may have heard of ethical thought experiments like the Trolley Problem (featured in an episode of The Good Place) and the Robin Hood Dilemma. By hypothetically putting your character through moral dilemmas like these, you can learn a lot about them.
So get nice and settled in your character’s shoes, then read through these quandaries and try to respond as they would.
Call off the wedding?
You are attending your best friend’s wedding and an hour before the ceremony, you discover definitive proof that their soon-to-be legal life partner is having an affair. Do you tell your best friend what you’ve seen and ruin the day, or do you keep quiet and let them marry — potentially dooming them to future divorce?
Wallet on a bench
You’re sitting at a bus stop and realize that someone’s left behind their wallet. Upon opening it, you see they have several credit cards, about $200 in cash, a collection family photos, and a driver’s license and business card with their phone number. Do you attempt to return the wallet untouched, give back the photos and license but keep the cash, or run off with the whole wallet?
You are at the beach and your son and nephew venture out for a swim, but they’re soon caught in a current that threatens to wash them away. There are no lifeguards around, so you swim to their rescue. However, you only have enough strength to pull one of them back to safety.
You know that your nephew is a weak swimmer and cannot hold on much longer, whereas your son is a relatively stronger swimmer and has a 50% chance of making it back to shore. Do you risk your son’s life to save your nephew, or do you pull your son back, effectively condemning your nephew?
More than just their ethical alignment, your character’s responses to these dilemmas can reveal a lot about their decision-making process and how their order their priorities. In your notebook, write out your character’s thoughts as they weigh up the options before making their final decision.
3. Find their breaking point
A satisfying character arc requires you to put your protagonist in a situation that has the potential to change something intrinsic to that character. This is called their “breaking point,” and it can really help bring your story to life.
For instance, a miser becomes kinder after seeing the effects of his misanthropy (A Christmas Carol); a self-centered rogue sees beyond his own interests to become a team player (Han Solo in Star Wars); a moral woman is pushed to betray her principles in order to survive (The Hunger Games) — in each of these stories, something big happens to catalyze the change.
For this exercise, identify your character’s defining traits: bravery, selflessness, greed, fear, ambition, apathy, etc. Then start jotting down situations that could potentially force them to change:
- If your character’s strength is loyalty, she might be put in a position where she has to betray a friend in order to help her family.
- If his defining characteristic is crippling shyness, he might be up for a promotion that requires him to speak in public. What could be so important about this job that will force him to take up the challenge?
- If it’s a negative trait like selfishness, this could be a great chance to give your character a redemption arc. You might have them get roped into volunteering at a soup kitchen for a day, and they realize that giving back to others is much more gratifying than obsessing over themselves.
Remember: whether your character actually changes or not is not necessarily as important as the internal conflict itself. It’s that battle between their inherent characteristics and their desires and fears that creates the dramatic core of any story.
These are just a few of the character development exercises you might want to partake in before or during your drafting process. Of all the things you can do to help keep your story on track, ensuring that you have a firm grasp on your characters and their arcs is right there at the top. Know your characters, and they’ll keep your narrative compass pointing true north.
Guest post contributed by Martin Cavannagh. Martin is a writer with Reedsy, a network that connects authors with the industry’s best editors, designers, and book marketers. He also curates a series of free publishing courses and webinars. In his spare time, he enjoys watching films and drinking Nescafe.