Answering questions about characters is a great way back into the process. Make a list of at least 10, but up to 100 questions you might ask about a person. For example:
- How old is he/she?
- Where was he/she born?
- What is his/her favorite song?
- Did he/she go to college? What did he/she major in?
- What is his/her credit rating? rent? mortgage payment?
- What is his/her favorite color?
- Has he/she ever been sailing? fishing? shooting?
- Is he/she afraid to fly?
- What songs on his/her iPod?
You can include all the vital statistics in these questions – how old, star sign, address, weight, height, eye color – and non-vital ones – favorite animal, kindergarten teacher’s name. Get a list of questions – the longer, the better. Then, answer them. For each main character in your piece. (If you are your main character, do it anyway – the you in your piece is not you, exactly, it is an alter-ego – your Jekyll or Hyde – so let it breathe a little.)
You can answer all questions for all characters, you can answer the first 10 questions for your protagonist, and the next 10 for the antagonist and so on, if you have a really long list. But these questions and answers are going to help you make the characters into living, breathing people. They are going to make you pin down things you already know, and give you details that will make your characters specific. Once you have this list, you can use it over and over for different characters and different pieces – the answers will always be different!
Details and specifics are friends of the writer – those quirks might suggest whole scenes, raise conflict, and solve narrative problems. This exercise also gets rid of the icky backstory problem. Once you know your character this well, you are free to leave out a lot of details, instead of feeling compelled to try telling your story through expositional backstory. It’s like lifting a weight – you suddenly have the answers, so you are free to disregard them and only use the ones that serve the narrative. If you like, you can use the answers to the questions to begin constructing a bio for each character – just don’t dance too much around the issue, which is getting back to writing the actual project.
Make up your own questions – about the world you are writing about, about the decision points in the story, about what you want to share with an audience. Answer them. (This can be a great exercise to do verbally with a buddy, or in a writing group, too.)
Use questions as a way back to the writing process; let the answers suggest a place to dive in with confidence!
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