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