get that character to speak up

You have probably seen writing exercises where you present your character with a personality quiz. Would this character rather be an airline pilot or a train conductor? An undertaker or a garbage man? A hairdresser or a house painter?

The problem is that these tests are way too general to get you any closer to understanding the character. Especially if you’re writing historical fiction. Julius Caesar, for example, would have no answers to these questions.

You need to ask the right questions to get answers that are any help at all.

If you were writing fan fiction about Deadwood, you might as your main character if he’d rather be hung for stealing a horse or jumping a claim.

If your novel is set among the upper class in civil war era Boston, you could ask a female character if she’d rather be known as an abolitionist or an adulteress.

In my own books, I could ask Hannah what she would choose, if she had to live in either Manhattan or New Orleans. I think that would involve a longer conversation, because at this moment I’m not sure what she’d say Although I am quite curious.

The questions you ask the character have to really get to the heart of motivation and conflict. Certainly you could ask your character if they’d prefer Rice Krispies or Lucky Charms for breakfast, but what would that really tell you? Okay, so there might be a certain kind of story and character where this would be revealing, but for the most part, no. The questions you ask have to be about something that causes the character to really stop and think.

And here’s the thing: if you hit the right question, you’ll get a better sense of voice from the answer.

Here’s a list of characters from well known stories, some of which you probably know. I’m going to be thinking about what questions to ask them. Let me know if you come up with anything good for these, or any other character who would be widely known.

  • Atticus / To Kill a Mockingbird
  • The Professor / Gilligan’s Island
  • Gus / Lonesome Dove
  • Hermione / Harry Potter
  • Ethel Mertz / I love Lucy
  • Mary Bennett / Pride and Prejudice
  • Mammy / Gone with the Wind

2 Replies to “get that character to speak up”

  1. I think it would be interesting to hear what Matthew, of Anne of Green Gables thinks on certain things.

    Also, Aunt Baru (is that her name?) the woman from Star Wars who, along with her husband, took in Luke Skywalker at Obi Wan’s suggestions/coercion.

    I guess I’m picking side characters, since their voice is defined, but their role is muted in some way, illuminating the action, but not the action. And sometimes I think those characters would really rather be anywhere but in the situation they’ve been put into.

  2. The conversation with Hannah regarding New Orleans or Manhattan would be interesting. I do wonder what she would say. I’m leaning toward Manhattan, but she wouldn’t be happy with either choice.

    Regarding The Professor and Gilligan’s Island, I think he’d be hitting up Mary Anne’s stash — too cliche in light of the recent news.

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