At the moment I’m developing characters for two projects, both for theatre.
The way I develop characters varies slightly from project to project, sometimes the characters emerge fully formed, walking, talking, farting but sometimes the idea has emerged from maybe an image or a situation and so I need to hunt to find my characters.
Always though I’m looking for a distinct character voice and always I’m looking for the character to surprise me because they do or say something I don’t expect.
Character developing is sometimes called hot seating which is a good way of thinking about it. Simply put your character in a seat and ask them questions. From the straightforward - What's your name? Where do you live? What's your home like? - to the ones that dig a little deeper - What is your strongest childhood memory? What is the most embarassing moment in your life?
I like to think of it as a journalist interview. I’m the journalist and I want to get my facts right but also I want to befriend my subject and get them to reveal unusual things about themselves. Because each project is different then my focus will be slightly different and I will want to really test my characters about certain aspects of their behaviour. The play I’m working on at the moment has “regret” at its core so I’ve added to my usual list of questions, what do you regret? I like this question so I'm going to keep it in the repertoire.
Because my characters main arc through the story is to admit that she does regret something, at first she says, I don’t regret anything. So I have to press her more about what she regrets. I also have to think about what can be said to this character or done to her to make her admit that she regrets something. So in this one question not only am I developing the character but I’m creating ideas for scenes.
Not all writers do detailed character development, some writers like to learn these things about their characters as they write, they want to let their character react to situations as they write and see what they do. For them the process of character development and first draft is intertwined.
Also some writers do far more detailed character development processes asking a thousand questions and knowing every aspect of their lives in minute detail.
For me I like to find a balance of taking the character through these exercises until the character is vivid and alive in my mind. Until the voice is strong and clear. Basically for me there is a point when the character and the story start to interact out of my control and I know that it is time to start writing the play.
The thing to ask is, are you happy with your characters? Are they two dimensional? Are they vague figures moving a plot around? If they are then your character development process needs freshening up.
The list of questions I ask comes from a combination of many exercises that I’ve done or read over the years as well as trying to add my own style of process to it. But more than that it comes from the questions I would ask a stranger in real life. Surely that’s the point. I want to get to know this person. So I ask, what is your name? Then I ask, do you like your name? This is something I do a lot in "real life" because I'm fascinated by names and what they mean to us. I hate my name. Sandra is very mundane and it's also a Viz character. Sharing a name with a Fat Slag is never going to be good. My surname Bendelow resulted in me being called Bendylegs thoughout childhood. So there you go, a question as simple as - What is your name? - has revealed quite a lot about me.
There is a great on-line tutorial from Cheryl Martin at the Bruntwood Competition site with advice about characters, including a great selection of character questions
If you want a really detailed character questionnaire, then try this one at the Script Lab
But don't forget to make the questions right for you and your process. Also make the questions right for each project. Asking what a characters home is like is great but if your character is a teenager then asking about their bedroom is like is so much better. Then go further, what posters do they have on their wall? What is the most important item in that room to your teenager?
It's important to think about your own interests though because this can be a quicker way to create and connect with a character as you develop them. I did theatre design courses and did a lot of costume design so if I ask a character what their favourite item of clothing is then it very quickly creates a whole character for me. If you love music then picking their favourite music will work for you. If you have a vast knowledge of art then ask them about their favourite artist.
The three workshops I’ve done with Kaite O’Reilly have looked at the importance of the questioning process, of letting the ideas from the answers flow into raw material. Most importantly exercises relating to character development get you writing and words on a page are better than an empty page.
I think it’s really important with these exercises to push beyond the obvious and really try to be true to the character. You might ask a question, something quickly comes to mind but then you need to ask yourself is that really what they would say? Also ask yourself is the character telling the truth, a stranger asks us a question and we say something that seems to reveal something but is it really the whole truth?
In many cases you have to try to imagine what your character would say after they’ve become really comfortable talking to you, or after they’ve drunk too many glasses of wine because that’s when the real truth comes out. Ask me a question sober and I'll tend to say something for the sake of getting a laugh, after a few glasses of wine I'll be revealing deep, dark secrets, but also probably trying to get a laugh.
My main character in this project has built up a lifetimes of walls to stop admitting even to herself that she regrets what she did. I have to get her to admit to herself that she regrets her actions even though that acknowledgement will cause her pain and will cause her to realise that years worth of her life has been built on a lie to herself.
So as I ask the questions, I know she is lying to me, I’m letting her say what comes out first, but I’m trying to prod further, I’m trying to find the thing that could make her crack and reveal the truth to me.
This way the process starts with doing a character interview but it quickly moves into creating raw material for my play. Some of the things that I am writing will be used in the play, but most of it will be discarded as back story. But all of it will make the character "real".
Most importantly though it’s fun. This is one of the best bits. Making the character come to life on the page is why I love writing.