Developing Characters In Fiction: Questions You Must Ask


When developing characters in fiction, a sharp imagination is one of the strongest tools you can have.

So, you’ve created a character with potential to be great. But if you don’t develop them, they’ll be stunted and static.

And that wouldn’t be good for the character or the story, unless their being stunted and static is part of the point…

To prevent this from happening, check out six questions to answer, to help you with developing characters in fiction.

1) What would my character do if…?
One of the things that reveals a character’s thoughts, beliefs and attitude is to have them in a situation where there is conflict. Whether it’s conflict with another person or with themselves, the way they handle it is an indicator of their development.

So, say you’ve got a character whom you’ve created to be honest and trustworthy.

What would he do if his only daughter falls ill or gets in an accident, she needs a life-saving operation, but he doesn’t have the money to pay for it because his salary hasn’t been paid for the past three months?

How he reacts is going to have an impact, not just on the story and its direction but also on him.

I’d like to think he wouldn’t just sit back and do nothing. So what is he going to do – especially if the choices that come up are less than honest or completely criminal? Will he take them? But this is an honest guy!

Honest guys don’t take money that isn’t theirs whether it’s by ‘borrowing’ from the company’s corporate account, or grabbing a gun to threaten people.

So, what would your character do if a friend or neighbour presents such options?

Whatever he does is going to change him in some way. He might rationalise, freak out, try to find another alternative.

He may or may not get the money he needs. His daughter might die because of or despite what he did or couldn’t bring himself to do. One way or the other, he’s not going to remain the same.

2) Why? What are they so affected by here and now that makes them react as they do @ #1 above?
This is an important question to ask when developing characters in fiction cos people rarely act in a vacuum. There’s almost always something we don’t see.

So, with the example of the financially challenged but honest man whose only daughter needs surgery, it’s not just the situation we see that’s responsible for whatever he ends up doing.

Two men given the same news may not react the same way cos even a similar situation can represent different things.

With this man, his desperation might be increased by the fact that his only daughter was conceived after a long period of infertility. Or her mother might have died in childbirth, so the girl is the only one he’s got.

So, the fear of loss isn’t just about, “Oh, I’ve got to save my daughter’s life” (which some fathers would want anyway, whatever the back story).

But this one’s actions are fuelled by remembering something he’s been through and what his child has come to represent to him because of what he’s been through – that a reader might not know about. Yet.

3) What in their background makes them the least likely candidate to react as they do?
One of the ways I do research is to ask very personal questions. And what I’ve found is that when tables are turned, people can excuse what they have asked others to ignore or endure.

I remember working on a storyline and I needed real reactions. So, I sent out a bunch of text messages asking, “What if your brother’s fiancee lost her womb in an abortion but she hasn’t told him? And the only reason you know is because you took her to the abortion clinic, but this was years before she got involved with your brother?”

A lot of people – including those I knew had no brothers – were outraged and devastated.

Coming from a very religious society where many people pay lip service to old things have passed away, all things have become new, God is in the business of re-creating wombs even if you lost yours, everybody needs to face their front, mind their business and not bother a couple no matter what – it goes to show that people who demonstrate one thing over a period of time can react in an opposite manner when push comes to shove.

Maybe, it’s self-preservation. Maybe, they were hypocrites all along. Who knows? It could be anything.

Whatever it is, there’s something in the background of your character that makes their current reaction so surprising. And it’s something you need to think about, when developing characters in fiction.

4) What has happened between then (the background) and now to turn them into the person who does what they did @ #1?
So, with the fictional woman who took her brother’s fiancee to an abortion clinic – what happened to take her from the person whose family believes she’s a saint, to the trustworthy friend who knows where to get a discreet abortion, and is now using that against her former friend?

5) What is the one thing your character wants not just out of this situation but out of life?
Some people want to gain or maximise pleasure. Others want to avoid pain.

How far is your character willing to go to get what they want and why is it so important to them? What will happen (or what do they think will happen) if they don’t get it?

So, say your character is a spy who has been tasked with retrieving information from a person or place. They’re not risking life or limb because of a paycheck.

There’s something else driving them; maybe love for their country. Maybe they’re being blackmailed and fear that their loved one will get hurt. Something is driving them but what?

6) What is the weakness your character has that could cause him/her not to achieve #5 on this list?
You might have noticed that being tasked with or being determined to do something isn’t the same as completing it.

When developing characters in fiction, you need to include a weakness or a flaw that could prevent that character from achieving their purpose.

This is actually different from external opposition; this is something that’s wrong with your character.

So, a bad guy gets away because he dives into a river and it just so happens that your character cannot swim. How is he going to deal with it?

Or your spy character starts seeing his dead mother in his dreams, keeps remembering all the Sunday School classes she took him to when he was younger and suddenly realises industrial espionage might not be such a good thing…

Or the female undercover agent starts catching feelings for the drug lord she agreed to sleep with, so she’s now thinking, “Maybe he’s not such a bad person…”

The external situations – the river, the situation that made the dispatch of a spy necessary, the drug lord and his activities – were always there. So, they’re not the problem per se. At least not in terms of character development.

That’s why the sixth question you want to ask when developing characters in fiction, is what’s the thing that already exists within my character that makes them so vulnerable to the external situation, that they risk not achieving what they set out to?

If you haven’t done so already, read this post about the wrong character creation writing beliefs messing up your screenplay.

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