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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)

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Craft Vids

I made five of these writing “how to” videos for Figment.com.  Here they all are in one spot.

1. Concrete detail is the bottom.

2. Make a bedroom for your character!

You can find all 36 Questions here.

3. Time, brother, time… scene and summary.

4. Crack your dialogue.

5. Personal Voice: What’s your Clooney?

Here’s a new Figment.com Stupid Craft Video

This one is details a process for building character.

The link to the 36 questions is here!

They do come in quite handy.  The great Sheila O’Connor teaches something similar in her fiction classes.  That’s where I got it!

Interested in an example? This is my “Bobby Bedroom” exercise.

Describe your character’s bedroom…

Bedroom: Bobby doesn’t make his bed (I think he used to).  He has no posters on the wall, because he’s taken them all down (used to have Star Wars poster).  He still has models he’s made out of legos and there are pages and pages of a very violent comic book he’s been drawing lying all over the floor.  Bobby’s bedroom his carpeted with dingy brown carpet.  The ceiling is low.  He has no bed frame on his bed.  There are five different musical instruments on the floor of his room: a recorder, an accordion, a ukulele, a trumpet, and a full drum set.  All of these instruments are covered in dust.  He clearly doesn’t play.  Bobby’s curtains are pulled shut, the blinds are pulled down.

Who is Bobby? He’s a former Star Wars geek kid who is interested in music.  He recently pulled down the Star Wars poster in a fit of rage.  He almost smashed the legos, but couldn’t bring himself to do it, because the took so long.  He often stares at the instruments on the floor, but he doesn’t have the energy to practice them.  He’s so tired.  He’s so tired, because he gets up so early.  He’s not serving himself at all.  He’s paying something back, because he and one of his Star Wars geek friends did something bad.  This is the first scene in the story… the bad thing. Do it in scene no summary or exposition…

Bobby is a normal kid who is riddled with guilt.  He is a good kid, though.  He chooses to try to make amends for the bad thing by treating an old lady well, but making her breakfast. He has no energy left for the things he loves (plus he wants to punish himself).

Problem of the story: find out how Bobby will fix the horrible mess he’s in.  How will he make this better (or worse)?  What will he do to stop this trouble?

If you’d like to take a look at the post on Figment.com, check it out, here!


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

I’m With Stupid

Fat Boy (Gabe Johnson Takes Over)

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