backstories, Character's inner life, off-the-shelf choices, personalities, tropes -


One way to develop characters in writing is to ask questions, to mentally interview the characters. It is by asking these questions that we get a sense of the character’s inner life, their personalities, their backstories. And it’s also how we develop characters out of the trap of stereotypes, tropes, and off-the-shelf choices.

For example, there are one hundred million (or so) scripts about detectives solving a mystery and/or chasing a serial killer. Many of the protagonists of these scripts are variations on a single detective character; if you have seen one, you have seen 99% of the others. Even if the writer tries a little bit to make the protagonist unique, it’s usually an off-the-shelf choice, like the detective has a pet, or an interest in music (usually the blues or classical).

But let’s actually sit this detective down and start asking questions. Start with the basics. Where are you from? Where do you live now? How old are you? How long have you been a detective? Why did you go into this line of work? What do you like or not like about detective-ing?

Even if we’re building on a stereotype, we can probably land on easy answers for basic questions. But then let’s start going deeper. Let’s ask our detective about where he went to school. His first kiss. The first time he got into a fight. The first time he can recall a member of his family passing away. The first time his parents disappointed him. His favorite album. How he likes his burger cooked. If he’s ever been out of the country, and where did he go.

The point being that we start asking this imaginary person questions that are unrelated to his position in the story (protagonist) and his stereotype (detective.) Instead, we’re talking to this guy about his experiences as a human being. And the answers to each one of these questions gives us another piece of the puzzle.

Then let’s allow our detective to start throwing curveballs; answers that we don’t usually expect from this kind of character. The challenge is to make these curveballs organic; don’t settle for just random or kooky-wacky-silly, but actually think them through.

For example, when asking our detective why he became a cop in the first place, the easy answer would be, “I came from a family of cops, so it was natural.” But what if we instead say his family hates him becoming a cop. They wanted to him help run the family bakery. So why did he diverge? Well… because one day the bakery got held up, and that made him feel helpless; a feeling he didn’t like. So becoming a cop is his way to try to not feel helpless.

We can and should apply this same questioning to supporting characters, or even minor characters. For instance, it’s easy to just write BARTENDER and call it a day. But a bartender who’s missing her left ear has a story to tell.

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