There are a great many lists out there of personality traits and favorite things and so on that you can use to invent a character. I have tried using some of them but they don’t usually end up being that helpful. Knowing your character’s favorite color or food doesn’t often play into your story. And labeling him/her as surly, intelligent, and afraid of heights may or may not mean anything when it comes to creating character arcs and plot points. These are somehow specific and too general at the same time. Furthermore, many of them aren’t relevant or need tweaking when writing fantasy and science fiction stories.
A method that I find helpful is to imagine a number of situations and how my character would handle them. This gives me a method of developing the character while defining him/her. I can practice writing him/her into a scene (or just going over it in my head works too) and get a feel for how s/he will interact with the world I am about to put him/her into. It ends up feeling much more organic than trying to write a list of personality traits into my book. And I can use the appropriate genre and even real settings from my story to bring the whole thing to life.
Take a look at this list of character building prompts and see if they help you unlock any new aspects of the people in your story.
1) If your character was betrayed by her closest companion, whether friend, romantic interest, or business partner, how would she react? Would she confront him/her or avoid him/her? Would she retaliate or forgive and move on? Are there any characters in your story likely to betray another?
2) If your character was traveling and his vehicle broke down in the pouring rain, what would he do? Would he get out and try to fix it or stay inside and wait for the weather to calm? Would he curse his terrible luck and pout or not take it personally and just deal with it? Would he berate himself for some action that may or may not have led to this situation or blame someone else?
3) Think of your favorite book or movie. Now take your character and put her in that book/movie. What different choices would she make? How would her emotional and mental state handle the challenges of the other story? Would the ending be different or the same? How and why?
4) Imagine your character is suddenly thrown into the future. Would she panic and cry over her situation or be excited at the prospect and try to explore? Would she want to gain new knowledge and try to take things back with her or just survive? Would she establish herself and become a member of the community or hide and wait for an opportunity to return to her own time?
5) And what if your character was thrown back to the past?
6) If your character won the lottery what would she do with the money? Shopping spree, charity, hoard it, or be very concerned since she would never play the lottery in the first place?
7) If your character was a different gender how would they approach the unique challenges of that gender? Would any of their main traits need to change and if so, why? How does their gender influence who they are and how they approach the world and its problems?
8) After your story is done and your character achieves, or doesn’t achieve, the goals you’ve laid out for him, what will he do? Five, ten, twenty years from the end of your story, what will he be doing? Assuming he survived your story, of course.
9) How would your character react to losing her most cherished possession? Would she move on and try to live with the disappointment or search high and low to the detriment of whatever else she should be doing? Would she post a reward and hope for the best or replace the item if possible? And then what would she do if it were returned, both with the object and with whoever returned it?
10) If your character was in a near-fatal accident, what methods of recovery would he use? Trust himself to rehabilitate himself or hire the best health care professionals available? Languish and die or work day and night to get better and return to his normal life? Would he use it as an excuse to take it easy for the rest of his days or use it as motivation to work harder and motivate other people while he’s at it?
11) What kind of near-fatal accident is your character most likely to get herself into? Would it be a car/spaceship/vehicle collision, wild animal attack, bandits, honorable battle between warriors, hate crime, self-inflicted, freak accident involving an everyday situation, magic or technology related high jinks?
12) If your character found himself in a physical trap, like the classic hole-in-the-ground-covered-with-grass, what would he do? Would he try to get out until he succeeded or was captured/killed/died of exposure? Would he sit and wait to see what happened next? Would he rethink all of the recent decisions he made that land him here? Would he try to figure out who might have laid the trap for him and devise a plan for when the enemy returned?
13) If your character found herself in a more metaphorical trap, like blackmail, how would she handle it? (All the same questions apply.)
14) If your character drank too much, or became otherwise intoxicated, how he act? Would he be chatty and say things he never would otherwise or clam up and brood? Would he be more fun or more violent? Would be stay relatively normal and just fall asleep early?
15) How does your character handle parties? Does she enjoy them but not get very involved? Does she eat and drink and dance the night away? Does she avoid everyone and count down the time until she can leave? Does she stick with one or two close friends and have fun as long as she doesn’t loose track of them? Does she meet new people and spend the whole time talking and making connections?
16) How does your character handle death? Does he go into a depression if it was someone close to him or recognize that life goes on and he must continue? If it was not someone close to him does he feel awkward around the grieving friends and family or does he offer comfort and support? Does he constantly live in denial and run away or work hard to confront his feelings and complete the grieving process?
Has your character faced death before?
17) How would your character deal with religious zealots? Would she join in because she is one or avoid them at all costs? Would she try to convince them of her beliefs and argue with them relentlessly? Would she not care about them unless they got too close to her?
18) How would your character solve a murder? Would he approach the problem methodically, collecting and examining the clues until he reached a logical conclusion? Would he suspect the first person who crossed his path and not let go even if others present contrary evidence? Would he hire a professional? Would he go into hiding in case he was next? Would he examine it from the murderer’s prospective trying to guess how he would have done it because he has experience with such things?
19) Imagine your character is forced to marry someone s/he doesn’t love. Does s/he try to make it work, assuming s/he isn’t abused etc? Does s/he try to get out at all costs? Does s/he try to sabotage the marriage so the other person leaves first? Does s/he wait to be rescued by his/her true love?
20) What would your character do if he met a person meeting his exact requirements for the perfect romantic interest? Be too shy to strike up a conversation or boldly approach and risk ruining it with his bravado? Would he work his way slowly into the person’s life and try to make sure s/he was for real or immediately ask to be introduced and try to get a date? (What is the perfect match for your character anyway?)
I hope these prompts were helpful! I’ll be sharing some more soon. Share with your friends if you think they could use a new approach to character building.
Leave a comment with your own favorite scenario to test your characters.