10 Questions to Ask Your Characters While Writing Your First Draft
Writing a first draft is a little bit like dating. You’re testing the waters with your newly created characters. You’re teasing out bits of their personalities to get a better grasp on what makes them tick and whether you want to spend months or years in their company. But unlike a bad first date, you don’t have to walk out on your work-in-progress. The fun part of writing is that you run this universe. If your characters aren’t compelling or intriguing right off the bat, you have the power to make them that way. (Take that, Tinder.) You can make them more passionate or accomplished, darker or more dangerous, than any real-life person you meet. Here are some questions to prompt your imagination along the way.
- Who has the most at stake in the conflict?
The most interesting story to tell will undoubtedly belong to the character who has the most to lose. Whether it’s a jealous ex-wife who fears her husband is going to remarry (The Wife Between Us/Sarah Pekkanen and Greer Hendricks), or a scientist who must single-handedly save the world from destruction (Recursion/Blake Crouch), the scope of the conflict will help you identify the people with the strongest motivations, and thus, the most compelling narratives.
- Does the main character have a secret?
Everybody loves a secret. Few tricks can make a story more entertaining than a character who’s hiding something critical. As the author, you can play around with how to handle the reveal. Think carefully through your options: Do you want your main character’s secret to be hidden from everybody, including your readers, until a key moment? (The Scarlet Pimpernel/Baroness Orczy is a classic example.) Or do you want to reveal it to your readers first, before the other characters find out the truth? (Then She Was Gone/Lisa Jewell.)
- What was a transformative choice in your character’s past?
Backstory is just as important as the “real” story, because it sets up who your characters are and why they are that way. Just like with real people, they’ve faced big life decisions that have contributed to their current situations. Sometimes, figuring out these decisions can help you unlock a motivation or a desire that you weren’t aware of previously, which can deepen your story. Maybe one character carries a regret, or a longing, that informs every little thing they do.
- Who does your character most admire – or loathe?
The judgments that your characters make about the people around them reveal a lot about who they are. Such opinions can reveal their deepest sense of the sublime as well as their innate biases and vulnerabilities. Populating your story with characters who embody moral and personal differences (To Kill a Mockingbird/Harper Lee) is a great way to not only create tension, but also construct a character arc.
- What is your character’s most cherished memory?
Thinking this through – and even writing a scene to sketch it out—can help you feel closer to your character’s private inner life. Maybe it’s a day spent at the zoo with a grandparent, or walking across a graduation stage, or meeting one’s child for the first time. Life is made up mostly of small, forgettable moments. When you settle on something especially memorable, don’t stop there. Interrogate your character even further. Why did that memory matter so much? Did it change everything that happened next? Was it the first, or the last, or the only moment of its kind?
- What is the one thing your character would kill for?
OK, maybe not literally kill, although we are talking about thrillers, so it’s certainly possible. The point is, you want and need your main character to feel pretty desperate about something. What is that thing, and why is it the most compelling thing in the world to that person? This doesn’t have to be on the scale of preventing a nuclear holocaust, but it should be a desire more intense than, say, getting to work on time. Unless your character is about to lose his job, and his family will have nowhere to sleep at night; in that case, showing up to work at 9 a.m. can be a seriously high-stakes situation (The Pursuit of Happyness movie).
- Quick! Your character’s house is on fire: What is the one thing that gets saved?
Imagining your characters under hypothetical pressure will force their values to the surface. It will also challenge you as the writer to go beyond the clichés. Maybe your main character doesn’t care so much about a picture album, or a piece of jewelry, or any of the typical things people save in fires. Maybe your character has something else precious to him that is particularly unique to his life and past. Maybe it’s a pair of silver candlesticks (Les Miserables/Victor Hugo) that has sentimental value, or something else whose importance only your character understands.
- What’s a recurring dream your character has experienced?
Sometimes, characters may only reveal their true selves in the most off-guard moments, such as during sleep. Recurring dreams can signal hopes or nightmares; they can point you in the direction of values or fears to exploit for the sake of your story. They can even play a role in the story – in a mystery, for example, why does one character keep dreaming about a certain stranger? Is it someone she recognizes from long ago? Is it someone she’s trying to escape? Someone she has fallen in love with from a distance?
- What is a defining physical trait about your character?
Maybe it’s something that everybody pays attention to, despite the character not wanting to be noticed for it (Wonder/R.J. Palacio). Or maybe it’s the opposite – the character blends in so easily that he or she goes unnoticed, for better or for worse. Maybe it’s a scar with special significance (Harry Potter), or a fashion statement that speaks to your character’s personality (Steve Jobs’ famed black turtleneck). A key physical detail helps ground your characters in the concrete world of your story.
- What is your character’s single greatest source of pride and joy?
Whether it’s a child, or a spouse, or a creative pursuit, or a special skill, or an activity, or a place, we can learn a great deal about someone by what they most treasure. And when that thing (or person) gets threatened, you have the building blocks of a thriller. Now go forth and write!
Kira Peikoff is the author of MOTHER KNOWS BEST (Crooked Lane/Sept. 10th), which Publishers Weekly praised as “a fascinating psychological thriller.” She has also published three previous suspense novels: LIVING PROOF (2012), NO TIME TO DIE (2014) and DIE AGAIN TOMORROW (2015). You can visit her online at www.kirapeikoff.com.