Any second now, those nice young men in their clean white coats are going to show up with a butterfly net and take me away to that place where basket weavers sit and smile and twiddle their thumbs and toes.
Why? Because I’m going to admit something that is completely and totally insane. I’m talking about talking to people who don’t exist. By definition, that’s crazy.
But in our little corner of the world, we call it writing. We create people, some based on people in real life, some not, and then we populate either this world or an imaginary world with them and run them through fantastic adventures, dangers, romances, or whatever.
Big deal, right? But what I’m talking about here is as part of the creation process of the character.
Let me explain. On my desk, I keep a big blue binder. Inside it is page upon page regarding my characters. I have a form I fill out on each, and here’s a little bit about it:
- Where they live:
- When born (could even have a birth date), and where:
- Educational level:
- Where they went to school:
- Languages spoken:
- Place of employment:
- Physical description:
So far, pretty standard stuff. Then I have a sit down with that character (like I said – any minute now). What I want to know is who are they. I fill in response to questions, and to a large degree it’s free association. Don’t be surprised if you get a few curves tossed at you by the characters.
Here’s the questions I ask them:
- Tell me about yourself. What I want the character to do is tell me about growing up, where they went to school at, first job, how they met their spouse, their past mistakes and triumphs, what they like to read, music they listen to, and what are their pleasures. In there, I also want to find out what their passion is, and what their fears are. What’s their biggest challenges and weaknesses? Do they like people, are they indifferent? What religion, if any, do they follow, and how good is that relationship?
- Tell me about your family. Of course I want to know the basics like their spouse’s name, when they got married, and such. But one thing I really want to know is how good their relationship really is. This also applies to relationship with children and extended family. An example here is my character Detective Will Diaz. His relationship to his spouse is everything. When the Bible speaks about a man and a woman becoming one, he takes it seriously. He’s taught his children to excel, to pay their own way, and not be afraid. He’s passed his belief structure onto them. By the same token, his relationship with his parents and siblings is non-existent. Other men are surrogate father for him, as are other women who fill the mother role.
Those are the kinds of things I want to know about the character because they show a lot of what motivates them, the hurts they carry, and so on.
- Tell me about a time you were in danger. What did you do, especially when it was all over? That kind of question would tell me a lot about them. Did they experience destroy them, or transform them? Did they sit in a corner and cry, or did they find resources to overcome and keep going?
- Can you take care of yourself? Since most of my characters are cops, related to cops, or just tough people, I want to know how well they can use weapons. their hands, etc. Again, using Will Diaz as an example, I quickly found out he can shoot expert with a pistol and sharpshooter with a rifle. He’s well up on unarmed self defense and has training and experience in several martial arts Note that Will never mentions having belts. If pressed, he’d say he’s a Master Ninja which he defines as whatever the hell works at the time. He could survive easily on a deserted island, the rain forest, or the Arctic. He can ride a horse, butcher an animal–in short, if civilization came to a screeching halt, it would be a inconvenience to him and nothing more.
- Tell me about your greatest success. Lot of things to look for here in their answer. Mostly, is it all about them. Did they have help getting there?
- If you found out you’ve got a terminal illness, what would you do? Don’t be surprised if the character looks at you blankly, but that in itself speaks volumes (like I said, any minutes now they’ll show up).
Here’s a few others I like to ask. I want to get a more surface look at them:
- Watch Star Wars or Star Trek? Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings? Use whichever movies you find most relevant.
- Read on a Kindle or paperback book? This question is a starter for many possible conversations on reading, favorite books, technology, libraries, bookstores and more!
- Go to a play or musical?
- Go to the theater or a movie?
- Wear jeans or chinos?
- Have a Margarita or Pina Colada?
- Drink a glass of Guinness or Fat Tire?
- Drink coffee or beer?
- Crash with friends or stay in a hotel?
- Visit Europe or Mexico?
- Vacation in Hawaii or Alaska, and why?
- Choose a free trip or money? This may tell you whether the person values experiences over dollars.
- Stay in a hotel or an Airbnb home?
- Go skiing or snowboading?
- Travel by plane, train, or automobile?
- Enjoy a houseboat or speed boat?
- Go climbing or zip lining?
- Hike or bike?
- Go to a comedy club or dance club?
- Have a night out or evening in?
- Watch TV or read a book?
- Go canoeing or waterskiing?
- Camp in an RV or stay in a tent?
- Use Facebook or Twitter?
- Use iPhone or Android phone?
- Win the lottery or find your perfect job?
- Swim in a pool or the ocean? Salt water and waves crashing on the beach or temperature controlled, lovely water all year round?
- Travel by sailboat or cruise ship?
- Watch sports or play sports?
- Play dodgeball or kickball?
This will help you see how they think:
- Who would you want with you if you were stranded on a deserted island? If they claim to be happily married but their answer is Ginger and Mary Ann, I’d wonder about how happy they really are.
- If you could do anything you wanted right now, what would it be?
- If money was no object, what would you do all day?
- Where do you most want to travel, but have never been?
- What is your favorite memory?
- Who is your favorite author?
- What is your favorite book?
- Who do you look up to and why?
- What was your favorite activity in gym class? (Personally I think the ______ was a lot of fun.)
- What does your perfect day look like?
- What is one thing that you can’t live without right now?
- University or life experience, which do you feel best prepares you for life?
- What is the one thing that should be taught in school that isn’t already?
- If you were to create a piece of art, what would the subject be?
- What one thing would you change if you had to do it over?
- If you could go back in time, what year would you travel to?
- What does your life say about you?
- How would your friends describe you?
Character are like people, they evolve over time, so when we learn something new, I always add it in.