Character development has always been the thing I find it hardest to do up front. Most of my characters have developed slowly over the life of the script, which is fine when you’re writing a spec with no one to answer to but yourself – but a little awkward when your script editor or producer has a thousand perfectly justified questions for which you have no answers!
So for my next spec, I’m making a concerted effort to work on the characters while I’m still in the brainstorming stage – that is, while I’m gathering random thoughts, scraps of dialogue, photos, and scribbled notes, assembling the fragments of my idea, but before any real decisions have been made.
One way I’m using is to ask myself questions about the characters. Hardly a new idea – it’s recommended by practically every writing guru – but it’s a technique I’ve never liked much until now. Turns out the key to getting it to work is – ask the right questions.
Our immediate instinct is to ask our characters the kinds of questions we’d ask someone we’d just been introduced to. Where are you from, are you married, do you have children, what do you do…
These are the wrong questions. For a start, they’ll largely be dictated by the plot: the action hero whose daughter is kidnapped has to be a father, and probably a husband or divorcee, whereas the heroine of a rom-con is unlikely to be happily married.
But the main problem is, the answers these questions generate are not specific to your character. Thousands of people live in London or New York or Lahore; most people are probably in a relationship most of the time; someone’s job doesn’t actually tell you that much about them.
No, our job as writers is to ask the questions we wouldn’t ever dare ask a new acquaintance. To demand to know the kinds of things about them that, in real life, would have to be freely offered, if they were ever shared at all.
One thing I’m finding particularly useful is to concentrate on questions that bring to mind events or memories from your character’s life. For example, “Last time you took someone on a date, where did you go and what did you do?” or “What subject or skill did you go out of your way to learn?”
After all, we’re storytellers, and once we start envisaging that wonderful (or disastrous) date, or visualising our character aged twelve, hanging round the neighbourhood chop shop to learn how to ring cars, we’re creating a story.
Stories stick in our heads better than dry facts – they stick in everyone’s heads, that’s why society evolved them, but we should be even more susceptible to them than most. Stories illustrate character, embody ways of thinking and acting, showcase dialogue, and place our characters in action so we can see who they really are. Just like your script is going to.
Also, using questions to create stories allows us to dig into our characters from the outside in. Rather than deciding that a character is shy, then giving him external (possibly cliched) characteristics that show that, we can let him loose in a situation, and find out whether he really is shy, or whether something else is going on.
So when you’re digging into your characters, look for questions about them that will lead to stories from their past or present, and that’s where you’ll really start to discover them.