36 questions to ask about your characters

As I sit here in my kitchen on a very hard wooden bench writing (struggling to write) the sequel to Stupid Fast, I’m reminded of how helpful seemingly mechanical exercises can be to the creative act. Every time I write a story, I get stuck.  Every time I write, I lose hold of characters and they start making choices and saying things that feel artificial.  Every time this happens, I remember a list of questions I started back in grad school (thanks to an exercise the awesome Sheila O’Connor put us through) that helps me get a handle on who my characters are (it really, really grounds me).  I’m just about to put this sucker to use for myself, so I thought I’d copy and paste it here for whomever.

These questions aren’t the only ones, of course.  But, they’re generally all I need to really understand the character I’m working with (they uncover back story, obsession, identifying quirks, ways of being, world view, etc.).  Write as much or as little as you want.  Create characters you’re not yet writing about.  Make up more questions (and send to me if you’d like).  This is a good time (and I need to have a good time writing, because I’m stuck).

  1. How old, exactly?
  2. Who do they live with?
  3. Where do they live?  Describe the physical place, home, neighborhood (not people, yet).
  4. Describe the kind of people who live where character does (not in the house, but in the neighborhood).
  5. What day is their birthday?  Birthday important to them?
  6. What is their level of education?  Where did (do) they go to school?  If college, what did they study?
  7. What is their parents’ socio-economic level (education, wealth, cultural background)?
  8. Parents religious?  If yes, what religion?  A big deal to them?
  9. Religion important to character?  Explain.
  10. What is ethnicity?  Is ethnic background important?  Describe.
  11. Parent relationships important to the character?  One parent more important than other?  Who?  Why?  If bad, describe.
  12. Do they have brothers or sisters?  Describe relationships.
  13. Are they married?  Good marriage?  Bad marriage?  Middle?   Describe what you know.
  14. Boyfriend/Girlfriend (even if they’re married)?
  15. Describe general history of romantic relationships.  Any bad/good history that informs how they live now?
  16. If they have children, describe relationships with each.
  17. What is their job?  Do they like the tasks?  Do they like co-workers?  Customers?  Describe.
  18. If possible, name and describe three closest friends in order of importance.  History is important.
  19. Who, if anyone, do they go to if they have a problem?  Do they go to different people for material problems (money, mechanical issues, etc.) and emotional problems?
  20. Where are they on a typical Sunday at 10 a.m.?
  21. Where are they on a typical Friday at 9 p.m.?
  22. Do they do their own laundry?
  23. What is their favorite food?  Why?
  24. What is their favorite possession?  Why?
  25. Do they keep a clean house?  Do they make their own bed?
  26. Describe the state of their bedroom.  What does it say about them?
  27. Do they know how to cook?
  28. Would they dance at a wedding?
  29. Do they like music?  What kind of music?  Can they play music?  Can they sing?
  30. Do they read?  What?
  31. Early riser or late nighter?
  32. Would they rather be good than rich?
  33. Would they rather be powerful than good?
  34. What do they want most? Describe concrete goal.  Describe emotional need.
  35. What’s stopping them? Describe.
  36. Do they think the universe is good, bad, or indifferent?  Or, do they not know (implies questioning)?

Student drawing of me teaching (exhausted students in background--how you must feel)


5 Responses to “36 questions to ask about your characters”

  1. 1 Wendy Skinner March 10, 2011 at 11:48 pm

    Great list! I have Sheila now for “The Novel” class. She asked many of these questions as she led us through a meditative-like Q & A character exercise. I’m bookmarking this and putting it to work in the morning! Thanks, Geoff!

    • 2 Geoff Herbach March 11, 2011 at 6:04 am

      Hi Wendy, I think half my thesis grew out of that exercise in Sheila’s class (turned into my first book). I go back to it again and again. It’s a good one!

  2. 3 Cheli Sea March 31, 2012 at 2:19 pm

    Oh, gosh, thank you so much! This means so much to me! I’m still in high school and struggling to write and maybe even get published. Any help I get is amazing, and these questions have given me a new spark to continue writing just when I was about to give up.

    • 4 Geoff Herbach March 31, 2012 at 2:25 pm

      Oh, excellent! Any way to trick yourself into keeping after it is something good. So glad you got a spark!

  1. 1 Geoff Herbach On Crafting Complex Characters | The Daily Fig Trackback on March 16, 2012 at 4:02 pm

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I am…

Geoff Herbach. I am the author of Stupid Fast and Nothing Special, among a bunch of other stuff. When I'm not writing, I teach writing at Minnesota State, Mankato.

Stupid Fast

Nothing Special

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