I read a lot about writing techniques, probably too much. Whenever the topic gets to characters, there will inevitably be a section that advises to “Get to Know Your Character.”
Getting to know your characters is a good thing. They are the most important part of the story. But whenever this advice pops up, what follows is a recommended list of items to fill out in order to help you understand your character. It might look something like this:
- Eye colour:
- Hair colour:
- Where they grew up:
- Where they live now:
- What do they eat for breakfast?
- What is their morning routine?
- Do they have any secrets?
- What car do they drive?
That is just a sample, and usually these lists have around 30 questions for you to answer. I can’t think of anything that would kill the joy of writing faster than having to figure out what a character eats for breakfast.
I also see a problem with these lists because they could hinder the organic development of a story. While it’s not the intention, the writer might find themselves forcing in some of these details where they don’t belong. Instead of a wonderful description, a writer may tend toward a basic description of their character’s anatomy. Instead of a great scene, a writer may provide a dull explanation.
For writing outside of the story, it would be better to write a prose paragraph or two. By writing prose you aren’t restrained to questions, instead you’ll come up with back story. The nice thing about prose paragraphs is that you’ll start developing story, not just create an information dump.
If you do like the idea of these questions, I would recommend limiting them to about three questions. Make these questions deep and open-ended. The question above, “Do they have secrets?” is a decent one, but it should be reworded to, “What are their secrets?” Spend a paragraph writing about the characters secrets and you’re sure to develop something.
When writing your story keep all of this in the back of your head, don’t feel the obligation to include it into the actual story. The intention of these character sketches is only to help you with the real writing.
Personally, I usually don’t write anything outside of the story. It’s a personal preference. I would rather just write within the story and edit and rewrite. But like all of these writing tips, you learn what works best for you.