I’ve always been slightly baffled by “Interview Your Character” exercises. If you’re not familiar with these, they’re lists of questions for an author to answer about their fictional character. The lists usually contain questions such as, “What’s your character’s favorite ice cream flavor?” And, “How did your character learn where babies come from?” These exercises are entertaining, but do they actually help with the story? In my opinion, they don’t. The fact that my character prefers chocolate ice cream isn’t helpful because it isn’t relevant to the story. In the type of fiction that I enjoy, characters are usually too busy fighting for their lives to stop for ice cream. Knowing their favorite flavor doesn’t help me.
I did some thinking, and some Google-ing, and some fiction-writing-reference-book checking, and I tried to come up with a character development exercise that would always be relevant to a writer’s story. Here’s what I came up with.
The most realistic characters in literature are the ones who seem to exist separately from the plot. The characters do not exist solely to move the plot forward. The plot is something that happens in the life of the character. That character existed before the plot happened, and if the character survives the plot, he/she/it will continue to exist after the plot is over.
So, this is the first step in my character development exercise:
1. Separate the character and the plot.
Who was this character before the plot happened? Who would they be if the plot never happened? What strengths/weaknesses/personality traits are they bringing into the plot?
Harry Potter can be used as an obvious example of a character who brought traits into a plot. The first time that Harry comes to Hogwarts, the Sorting Hat considers his personality and debates about whether to put him in Gryffindor or Slytherin. The reader learns that Gryffindor students are brave and chivalrous, and Slytherin students are ambitious, cunning, and resourceful. Harry possessed all of these traits before being told that he was a wizard. If he’d never found out that he was a wizard, he’d still have these traits. They are part of his personality.
The next two steps in the character development exercise are about human behavior. A lot of human behavior is driven by two things: desire and fear.
Think about your character separately from the plot and answer these two questions:
2. What is this character’s greatest desire? (Not directly related to the plot).
3. What is this character’s greatest fear? (Not directly related to the plot).
If your plot is about a character who needs to kill an evil overlord, their greatest desire shouldn’t be to kill the overlord. The desire and fear should be much deeper than that. They might be so deep that the character doesn’t even realize that these things are determining how he/she/it reacts to certain situations. Once again, think about the character before the plot happens. It might be helpful to go all the way back to the character’s childhood. How was the character raised? If the character had overbearing, perfectionist parents, the character might be terrified of failure. This could make the character scared of trying new things because there’s a possibility of failure when anything new is attempted. On the other hand, it could make the character rich and powerful because the character puts a ton of effort in to everything that he/she/it does in order to avoid failure.
What if your character was orphaned as a child? This could cause a desire for love and acceptance, and that could lead to the character getting involved in an abusive relationship. The character desires to feel loved so badly that he/she/it will settle for a relationship with someone who takes advantage of the character.
Here’s the last step in this exercise:
4. Look at the events in the plot from the character’s point-of-view.
The plot will reveal your character’s greatest desires and greatest fears. It might be so subtle that the average reader doesn’t notice, but you (the author) should notice the desires and fears being revealed. Different characters will react to the same situation in different ways because their behavior is being driven by different desires and fears. A character who desires happiness may have no problem leaving a job that he/she/it hates. A character who fears failure may be reluctant to leave a crappy job because he/she/it might fail at finding a new job.
If it helps, you can do this for each character and major plot point:
This character desires ___________, so when __________ happens in the plot, the character will have this reaction: _________________.
This character fears ___________, so when __________ happens in the plot, the character will have this reaction: ________________.