When I was in the M.F.A. program at Western State, they emphasized the importance of really knowing your characters. They had us answering questionaires about our characters which included questions about things that were never going to come up in the story, so it didn’t seem like they really mattered. I mean, who cares what Delilah likes to eat for breakfast? Or what her favorite color is? Unless it has direct bearing on the story, I couldn’t see any reason for knowing the answers to pointless questions about my characters. But I learned that I was wrong.
In order to be true to your characters, you must know who your characters really are. Readers may not know that red is your character’s favorite color because her daddy gave her a red dress on her eighth birthday and she thought it was the prettiest thing she’d ever seen, but you should. It may affect the color of car she drives after she gets her liscense, which leads to her getting pulled over while unknowingly carrying drugs in the car that her boyfriend stashed in it, which in turn can set off a whole series of events which otherwise wouldn’t have occurred. You might put her in a yellow Volkswagon Bug, instead of the cherry red Corvette she needs to be driving for the story to unfold, and our heroine to win the big race.
If you were writing an inspirational book, or a self-help book, you wouldn’t advise your readers to do something that was totally out of character for them because it’s very likely they would never, ever do it. Likewise, your characters shouldn’t do things that are out of character for them. Unless you know why your character is doing certain things, you can’t write in the proper subtext which will clue readers in to the motives, as well. The more you know about your characters the more their actions in the story will ring true.
By knowing your characters histories, you are bringing them to life, solidifying them into someone that will feel genuine to your readers. And these days, it’s all the fashion to interview your characters, or have someone else do it. These interviewers ask questions very similar to those used by my graduate program instructors on the questionaires they had us fill out. Your characters have to have past lives and histories in order to respond to interview questions, because they may have to do with things outside of the story line.
So, pull out those questionaires, such as the Proust Questionaire, or the Character Chart for Fiction Writers, and get to really know your characters. If you don’t know the answer to one of the seemingly meaningless questions, take the time to discover what it is, even if you don’t think it will ever matter. Challenge your character to an interview if you think it might help, or if you think it might be fun. Once you’ve developed the characters, write their stories true to who they are, to who you, the author have created them to be.
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