By Julie M. Goldberg
The fiction project I’m working on features a large cast of characters gathered in a supermarket one autumn evening. I won’t elaborate on what is happening to them there, but suffice to say that not one is having a pleasant shopping experience.
When writing my first novel, I felt that the characters existed in the universe somewhere, and my role was to get well enough acquainted with them that they would trust me and tell me their story. They did, but it took a long time.
The characters in the current story have suggested their collective existence and experiences to me, but require much more effort to sculpt as individuals. I wanted each to have a separate soul, as evidenced through her language, her longings, and her choices.
To that end, and recalling the detailed character studies my acting teacher used to require us to write before speaking a word onstage, I crafted a character template customized to the world in which these characters live and the moment in which I’m observing them. Answering a hundred or more questions about each character before trying to sketch her arc has been extraordinarily helpful. Some questions, I answer in a few words. Others become prompts that generate pages and pages of backstory and insight. I handwrite my initial answers, then elaborate when transcribing them onto the computer.
The template-fueled prewriting has brought each character to life. Only a portion of the information the template draws out has made it into later drafts of these stories, but the intimate knowledge of each character’s hidden self and public presentation suffuses every moment.
I’ve found this technique so useful that I thought I would share it with a wider audience. I don’t imagine anyone else could use my specific template (unless your story also takes place in a supermarket), but it might help you write your own.
Obviously, I’m asking the questions I want my characters to answer. You might not care whether your characters can cook, but you might find it advantageous to learn whom they secretly resent, or where they wish they were. What would you like to know about your characters? You won’t know if you don’t ask. Fictional people can be as coy as real ones.
What are the basic facts of her life? A character’s name can reveal a great deal about her age, place of origin, and social class. How old is this character? What is her race or ethnicity, and how much does she consider it part of her identity? What is her marital or relationship status? With whom does she live, and why? In my story, the aisle of the grocery store in which she is shopping also carries significance. In yours, setting of any kind is important.
Health affects every aspect of our lives. Consider whether your character is experiencing any symptoms, chronic conditions, illnesses, or allergies. Does she hurt anywhere? Does your character sleep well, and if not, what does she do while awake in the night? How would she describe her sexuality? Does she enjoy sex? What kind? What attitudes does she have toward sex?
Appearance goes beyond height, weight, and coloring. It includes the way the character presents herself in the world. What is she wearing? What is she carrying? What is her relationship to food, her body, exercise? Has it been different at other times in her life? In what kinds of clothing does she feel most herself? What is her symbolic color?
At this moment
My characters are grocery shopping. Yours probably aren’t. But your goal is the same no matter what they’re doing: how does your character respond to this particular place and time? Some questions you should be able to answer include: where is your character right now, and why? How does she feel about being there? Where has she just come from, and where will she go next? Does anyone expect her? Was anything wrong before she arrived? What objects, people, sounds, or sights in her environment does she react to? Is there any relationship between where your character is and how she’s feeling? What’s the weather? What season is it? What time of day? How does your character react to this temperature, this amount of light?
Food and Home
No matter where your character is at present, she probably has a home. What does she consider her home? Is it where she lives now, somewhere she lived in the past, or somewhere she hopes to live in the future? Where might she want to be buried? Is she between homes? In the place she currently lives, what do they generally eat? Who shops, cooks, cleans up? Is this character sloppy or neat? Who cleans? Can she cook? Does she like to? What does this house look like, and what might it reveal about the people who live in it?
Money & Career
Adults often define themselves by their work, and money and its pursuit absorb a great deal of time and attention. What is your character’s job? Where does this job fit into her entire career? How did she choose her field? Is this what she had hoped to do, or something quite different? Where does her money come from? Does she have enough? Does she worry about it? How does your character handle money?
Was your character raised with religion? Is she still involved in it? What is her relationship with death? Is she into mindfulness? Gratitude? Meditation? Does she have any relationship to the divine? How would she define her spirituality, if any? Does she pray? To whom or what?
Art & Entertainment & Intellectual life
Is she a journaler? If she’s a reader, does she like romance, genre fiction, serious fiction, non-fiction? How was she educated, and what parts of her education are incomplete? What kind of music does she love? What are her hobbies?
Relationships & Social life
What is her relationship to her parents like? Are they living or dead, real or substitute? What about siblings, friendships, other family members? Is she a “joiner” (clubs, church, etc.)? Who does she love? Is she married/partnered? How does she feel about her significant other, or lack of one? What is her attitude toward love (romantic, cynical, practical, complex)? Does she have kids? How old? What are they like? Who does she hate? Who does she resent? Who is she in conflict with? How does your character use social media? Is she different on social media than in real life?
Inner Life, Desires, Dreams
What motivates her? What is her secret sin? What is her secret pleasure? Who or what is she grieving? Who or what is she worried about? Does she fantasize about escape or rescue? Where does she wish she were right now? Who does she wish she could trade places with? What does she know, but can’t admit to herself? What is that even she doesn’t she know about herself?
What is her style of speech and expression (sentence structure, favored words, images, sayings, clichés)? How do her feelings shape her language?
Finally, don’t forget the point of the character template: to expand and deepen your story’s world in order to engage the reader with more than just the plot. You need to consider how your characters fit into and interact with the world of your story. What are the characteristics of each character’s voice? Ideally, your characters’ voices will be so distinct from one another that the reader could guess who is speaking even without attributions. How does your character’s inner self clash or conform with the world of the story? What is this character’s arc? How does her arc inform the theme and tone of your story?
These categories and questions tell me what I need to know about my characters, but yours could be quite different. Maybe you need to know how your characters relate to animals, or handle mortal danger, or cope with the challenges of interplanetary travel. Once you decide which characteristics matter, make detailed lists of questions and answer them for each character in your story.
My longest character studies have been upward of forty handwritten pages, but the time and effort have been an investment, not an expense. The characters have revealed secrets to me they would not have so readily given up, had I not asked them questions they weren’t expecting. They told me secrets from their childhood, expressed ambivalence about their choices, and told the truth about things they usually lie about. The more deeply acquainted you become with your characters, the more vivid and nuanced they will appear in your pages.
Julie M. Goldberg is a writer, librarian, and teacher. She completed her first novel in 2013 and is working on a second. Julie lives in the Lower Hudson Valley with her husband and their two children. She is an obsessive reader, an occasional jazz singer, and an enthusiastic baker.