There are many character questionnaires and exercises out there. I like to interview my characters when I’m stuck, and I have a list of questions I work through to flesh out their backstories. You can also concentrate closer to the surface, focusing on favorite foods, colors, memories and so on. Lynn Veihl at Paperback Writer posted some handy tricks this week that cover this last angle well.

But at the Everyword workshop on rhetoric in drama last week, RSC’s chief dramaturg, Jeanie O’Hare, set an exercises that I felt got me closer faster to my character’s motivation than anything I’ve tried before.
Answer these questions about your character. Use a timer if you can and try to limit yourself to three or four minutes a question. The urgency of the exercise helps you to bypass critical thinking. This is one for your gut!

  1. Describe your character’s relationship with his/her father and mother
  2. Describe the last time s/he exacted revenge
  3. Describe a great rupture in your character’s life
  4. How does s/he react when a friend wins praise
  5. Describe an act of bullying (either as victim or perpetrator)
  6. To what lengths would s/he go to secure time with a loved one?
  7. What childhood want still lingers in your character?
  8. What are your character’s deepest sexual desires?

Did you surprise yourself? I did, when I worked on it. Our relationship with our parents, with sex, persecution, loss, revenge, jealousy, and love are keys to deep feelings. For that reason, it’s particularly easy to begin writing about them on our own behalf.

Why should these questions make ideas flow on behalf of our characters, though? After all, they’re not us. That’s the whole point of them, isn’t it?

I believe that at this deeper level we tend to towards empathy. If you’ve not been dragged from your parents’ side at the age of six, you may still have been lost in a department store or at a railway station. You probably remember that moment of pure panic and loss. If you know how something might feel at a gut level, you can deepen it, stretch it.

It’s not empathy alone that helps us here. It’s also our own fractured, contradictory, and ambiguous emotions. Even if you’re always unselfishly pleased for your successful friends, you may nonetheless know that small jealous voice, the unworthy part of you, that you must silence. This time you can nurture it, give it room in your character.

With these questions you can begin with yourself, transfer the feelings across to your character, and then twist them from empathy to invention. These are emotional stem cells.

And where does that leave you? I believe that if you find passion in the answers to these questions, then chances are, they will form the basis for a character in whom your readers will believe. A characters whose actions are driven by real desires and emotions and not just by the demands of a plot.