Getting Inside a Character’s Head – Part 1: Questions

Getting Inside a Character’s Head – Part 1: Questions

Characters are central to any story. If your characters aren’t interesting, no one’s going to spend 100+ pages reading about them. Interesting characters are three-dimensional; there’s more to them than their appearance and motivation. Just as your world should have pieces that move unseen in the background while your characters are elsewhere, every character should have a history which has brought them to the moment they enter the story. Often with world building you can find a way to infuse the interesting bits into the story. Unfortunately, that isn’t always true with characters.

Much of the time we spend developing our character’s history and psychology never makes it into the book. You should know all about your character – as much as you can – whether or not a particular detail crops up in the story. A character’s history, experience, even their likes and dislikes shape the way they act in a given situation. The real key to writing an interesting character, and giving that character voice, is to get inside their head, to know what they think at any given time, and why they think that way. (Yes, the why is as important as the what.)

There are plenty of exercises you can use to get inside into your character’s head. Much like the basic list I made for world building, here are some questions you can use as a jumping point.

Where does your character live?
I’m not talking about their home country or city. I’m talking about their house, apartment, or lack-thereof. Another interesting question you could use is what is my character’s dream house? in case they’re not living in their ideal situation. Where and how a person lives can say a lot about them.

A fun exercise I often use is to imagine your character opening the door to where they live. Go with them through the door and tour every room of their abode; how is it laid out? How is it decorated? Is it cluttered or clean? Is it an organized chaos or just a mess? Does everything have a particular place? What colour might the walls be? The furniture? The style of decor? Does your character even care about those things?

You’d be surprised how just imagining a character’s current or ideal living space can bring them to life. My writing partner once described to me the small loft where his winged-elf character lived. It fit the character so perfectly, it blew me away. And since then I have invested a lot of time determining the layouts of my characters’ homes, even if they’re never mentioned in the story.

What is your character’s normal routine?
What is a typical day for your character? Are they attached to their routine? How rattled would they be if something interrupted it? Conversely, do they prefer to be spontaneous? It’s important to know how your character spends their time. This will help you determine where certain events naturally take place. It will also help you develop the normal details likely to come up in a story, such as your character’s profession. Do they cook dinner for themselves or do they haunt the local tavern in the evenings?

Here’s another fun exercise; go with your character for an entire day. What time do they get up in the morning (or do they sleep past noon)? How much time do they devote to each activity? Follow them through a regular work day (if they have a job), then repeat the exercise again with a typical non-work day. What do they do with their free time? Do they share their hobbies with a group of friends, or do they prefer to spend free time alone? Is your character often forced to spend time doing something they dislike? If so, how do they react to those restrictions?

What is the most defining moment in your character’s history?
Every character has at least one life-defining experience which has shaped who they are. Some characters may have several. I’ve always been a big believer in experience shaping who a person becomes. The same character, with the same thoughts and attitudes, may be an entirely different person if they lived in a world where this core, defining experience was different (and I often play around with this concept). What is one event in your character’s history that would make them a different person if it were to disappear or occur differently? Would it have had the same effect if it happened earlier or later in their life? What if the reverse had happened?

If your character has several such defining moments, are the incidents related? What if one had happened but not another? How have these experiences shaped the way the character reacts to certain situations? Does this event drive their motivations? Will it get in their way later on? Taking the time to write this defining moment, as a prompt response, outline or scene to potentially use later, may help prevent ‘info dumping’ when it comes time to start your story (and is tons of fun aside).

How does your character view the world?
Is your character cynical? Or, perhaps, religious? Moral? Or morally ambiguous? How does your character’s view of the world shape their actions? Do they follow a code of honour or do whatever they like? What would happen if your character was forced to cross a line they would otherwise never be willing to cross?

Here’s an interesting exercise; think of a recent important or interesting event you encountered recently. How would your character react to a similar situation? This exercise is particularly fun if you choose an event the character would normally not encounter and consider their reactions.

There are many more questions you can ask about a character, obviously, and plenty of interesting prompts you can use to practice getting into their head. You don’t have to answer every question about every character, but the more you know about a character, the more complete and realistic they’ll seem, even if no one else ever knows the details.

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