10 Things I Know About My Character
Forget those character questionnaires with hundreds of questions. There are only 10 things you really need to know about your character to get your story started.
1) What is the most notable feature of their appearance?
You may know that the character’s eyes are the color of the sea and they have a strong straight nose and peach colored skin and hair like golden wheat…and blah blah blah. The point is, laundry lists of features bore readers. Think of their most notable feature and a unique way of describing it. Short stories rarely demand full physical descriptions.
2) What is their age?
This is important in establishing tone. After all, we expect that a child, teenager, and an adult will have different ways of speaking and thinking.
3) What is something they are good at?
Everybody is good at something and your character should be too. This can be skill based– art, math, mechanics, video games..etc. This can be social– maybe they’re natural leaders or good at making friends.
4) What is their biggest weakness?
It’s not a résumé, be honest with your character. They should have flaws. Sometimes that’s the driving force behind the story, a severely flawed character. But in fantasy and sci-fi, where heroes reign, many characters suffer from a lack of weakness. Check out these 123 Ideas for Character Flaws from Writers Write.
5) What is their signature action?
This is often a physical manifestation of the character’s inner state. This can be a quirk, a physical tic, a habit. Examples: they can’t make eye contact in conversation, they wring their hands when they’re nervous, they fidget when they’re bored, they run their hands through their hair when confident…etc. Don’t be limited to the usual- a unique signature action can become the basis of a short story on its own.
6) What secret have they never told?
Your character should have a secret. One or two people might know this about the character, but it’s something that the character does not freely share. This can be a source of pain or triumph for the character. Keeping the secret or the reveal of the secret can be the basis for the plot. Maybe you don’t even mention the secret in the story, but knowing this about your character determines nearly everything about them. Check out author Angela Ackerman’s post on discovering your character’s secrets.
7) What is their fear?
Listen to Vonnegut. You may have to do horrible things to your characters. Knowing your character’s fear allows you to exploit those fears for your plot. Test your characters. Push them in unfamiliar directions. Bring them right up against those fears.
8) What do they care about/believe in?
Everybody cares about something, even villains. Discover what your characters believe and care about. This is a great chance to think about their morality, their religion, their spirituality, the people in their lives that they love, and/or what they would fight for. Think about whether or not their beliefs challenge or fit the society in which they live. You can also use the differing beliefs of two characters to create tension.
9) Where do they live and with whom?
This will tell you a lot about your character, from their financial state to their relationship status and so much more. Get a good picture of their habitat and who they may share that with. Never forget to ask yourself why they live in that situation and what it says about them as a character.
10) What do they want?
Chances are, your character wants something, and that’s why you’re writing this story. Many stories begin with a character asking for something. They want adventure, they want to set something right, they want the big job, they want to get the girl, they want to win the race. What does your character want? How will they try to get it? Will you give it to them?
Bonus* What is their name? Names are only important when they’re important to you, the writer. Some writers choose names at random, and for other’s this is a painstaking process full of meaning. If you like to give your characters names with meaning, this can be an important thing to know about them.
This list has been adapted from a writing exercise developed by the author, Charles Baxter.