Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

How I write 2: characterisation

As an emerging writer, I know there are certain disciplines that I have yet to master, the most important and obvious being structure.  But, as regards characterisation, I can speak as an accomplished practitioner.  This is partly because I am a self-conscious weirdo who was brought up by un-self-conscious weirdoes. 

I definitely agree with the adage that character is plot.  Once I have fully formed a character, all I have to do is to make him or her go into a coffee shop, and I have got the starting point for a story. 

You can use questions to help to draw out characters.  Which questions are the more useful will depend on what kind of character you are trying to create.  The questions you might ask of a 17th century puritan pamphleteer will be different from those relevant to a 21st century call centre worker.   Here are a selection about character X.  This list is intended as a hypothesis.  You can think of your own questions.  For the main protagonist in a novel, I would expect the writer to be able to answer 40 or 50 such questions. 

  1. If the house caught fire, what would X grab before fleeing the building?
  2. If X won a million pounds, what would he/she spend it on?
  3. If you were with X in a pub and somebody punched you, what would X do?
  4. If the phone rang in the middle of dinner, would X answer it?
  5. If I took X out for dinner and said, “tonight, money is no object,” would X feel anxious?
  6. How often does X travel abroad?
  7. What is X’s worst regret?
  8. What does X consider to be his/her greatest achievement?
  9. If you wanted to irritate the hell out of X in less than 5 minutes, what would you do?
  10. If X were to propose marriage to some-one, where and how would he/she do it?
  11. Who would be the likeliest person to officiate at X’s funeral?
  12. In the fridge or cupboard, what, if anything, does X never run out of?
  13. If you locked X in a cell for 4 weeks and told him/her that he/she could take one thing (other than a PC or mobile phone) in with him/her, what would it be?
  14. What would make X jump up and down with excitement?
  15. Does X read books?  Does X read the last few pages to find out what happens before embarking on the rest of the narrative?
  16. What is X’s favourite novel/play/film?
  17. At what age did X first have sex? 
  18. What does X think about children?
  19. Does X have any addictions?
  20. What subject does X know most about?

The best characters come almost fully-formed out of your subconscious.  However, like everything else in writing, what starts as a weak characterisation can be made stronger by working on it.  One of my favourite experiences in writing, one that only happens rarely, is when a character arrives at the door and demands to be let in.


2 responses to “How I write 2: characterisation

  1. Steve Potter July 24, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    A few sample additions:

    a) What are X’s secrets; who knows them and why?
    b) What are X’s dualities; who sees which and why?
    c) What are X’s dreams of the future, and in sleeping; what memories haunt and refuse to heal?
    d) What does X recall of their childhood, and can X see back out through that child’s eyes at the world that shaped their key beliefs or understandings?
    e) What behaviours do others most associate with X, and how conscious is X of their actions or words?
    f) Did X’s parents affect his/her development, or were peers more important perhaps?

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