Character Development Questions That Aren’t About Eye Color
Character development questions can help you transform a made-up person into a character that feels real. Like “on the verge of becoming sentient” real.
The only trick is that you have to ask the right questions.
When writers say that character interviews don’t actually help, it’s usually because they’re using a questionnaire designed to nail down surface-layer details.
What color are their eyes? Where were they born? What were they for Halloween last year?
Think of the last book you recommended to a friend. When gushing about how magnetic the protagonist was, did you happen to mention the fact that they played the tuba in seventh grade?
Of course you didn’t.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with creating a comprehensive image of your character in your own mind. There is value in knowing your protagonist so well you can name what they had for breakfast and how long it took them to digest it.
But when it comes to character development, it’s way easier to start with the deeper, more defining traits. Fears, dreams, relationships, flaws… when you clarify what’s going on inside your character, the external details emerge naturally. That’s why thought-provoking character development questions can make all the difference in the writing process. I’ll show you how. We’ll talk about what a character interview is, when to use it, and how to use it.
Then I’ll give you what you came for: sixty-five fresh-out-of-the-oven character development questions you can use today.
What is a Character Interview?
A character interview is a list of questions you “ask” your character in an effort to get to know them better. And I do mean “ask.”
This isn’t about building a character profile that lists facts about a fictional person. In a character interview, you treat this shapeless wisp of inspiration as if they are an actual fleshy person sitting across from you.
It’s a great exercise for planners who want to know their character’s whole deal before they start writing. But a character interview is also a great tool for pantsers because it’s essentially a form of discovery writing.
You’re letting the character take shape as you write them. Instead of obsessing over whether your creature is “interesting” or “trending right now,” you get to step back and let them tell you who they are.
Even better, you can conduct a character interview at any phase of the writing process. If you want to launch into your draft all reckless and blind, go for it! When you get stuck on page ten (no judgment!), you can have an impromptu sit-down with your character.
The people who live in our heads tend to be available at a moment’s notice. It’s one of the benefits of living in imaginary worlds.
How to Use a Character Development Questions
So, how exactly does one interview a half-formed thought? Let me walk you through the details.
How Does a Character Interview Work?
Copy and paste the character development questions you like into your favorite writing software. If you’re a Dabble user, your Character Notes are a great place to store your interviews.
You can also use notecards or a notebook if you’re old-school and romantic like that.
Answer each question in writing, responding in your character’s voice. This is super important. Writing in your character’s voice sparks creativity and helps you forget about that article that said sassy witches are really hot right now.
Writing in the character’s voice also makes the character begin to feel more real to you. You know that feeling when you hear the voice of someone you love in the other room? There’s an instant familiarity—not just in the sound of their voice, but in the rhythm of their speech and the words they use.
Work on finding that familiarity with your character while going through character development questions. When you find it, you’ll be able to create that same familiarity for your readers.
Which Characters Should I Interview?
Whomever! Which character is eluding you? Talk to that one.
Character development questions can help you shape any character, from your hero to your villain to the cranky newsstand guy who appears on exactly three pages.
When Do I Use Character Development Questions?
When you need to know more about your character.
This could be when you’re still outlining your story and trying to get a better sense of the people who populate it. A character interview also comes in handy when you’re blocked on a scene. If it’s not clear what a character would do, pop into your character notes and ask them the questions that will help clarify their feelings and motivations.
You can even use character development questions during the editing process. Unless you’re some kind of literary magician, there will be moments in your early drafts where your characters fall flat. Maybe their choices don’t make sense or they feel a little generic.
Whatever it is, a nice imaginary chat can work wonders to get the wheels turning again.
Wherever you are in the process, be sure to ask your character questions based on where they are in their arc. If you’re just starting to develop your character, have them answer from their perspective at the beginning of the story. If you’re trying to make a breakthrough on a specific scene, let your character’s answers come from where they are in this moment.
Which Questions Should I Ask My Characters?
Only you can answer that and you’ll know when you know.
How’s that for a cop-out?
It’s true, though. Not every question on a character questionnaire is going to help you find out what you need to know. Check in with yourself as you approach each query. Do you feel any resistance? Do you get the feeling you’re digging into a topic that ultimately doesn’t matter for your character? Are you bored by the question? If so, skip it!
Or do you feel the good kind of resistance—that sense that you’ve struck a nerve within yourself and you’re a little nervous about exploring it? Does this question create an emotional response for you? Does it feel relevant to your story? Do you find that you’re eager to know the answer?
And add questions as you go. As with any good interview, your character’s answers will probably spark new areas of curiosity. Ask everything you want to ask.
For now, here are some character development questions to get you started.
Questions to Ask Your Characters
When you start building a character, you can start with the mingling questions. You know: the semi-nonsense you ask at a work friend’s party. What do you do? Where do you live? Are you married? How do you know Sue?
But as soon as you get the basics down, you gotta be the introvert at the party. Bring up religion. Ask about politics. Ask them which of their children they’d rescue from a burning building if they could only choose one. Look them dead in the eye while you wait for the response.
What follows is a list of sixty-five character development questions. I’ve separated them out by phase:
- Character Conception: This is when you first start dreaming up your character and you need some concrete, foundational information. Getting started is the hardest part, so if you need something to spark the imagination, check out our character archetype masterclass or our list of character ideas.
- Character Development: This is when you start finding the breathing human being inside the mental stick figure you drew in the previous phase.
- Character Clarification: This is when you realize you need to know more about your character. It may be that you’re not sure what your character would do next or that you’ve read over your first draft and realize your character needs more texture.
By all means, mix and match as it suits you. You may find that a question in the first phase is exactly what you need to make a breakthrough in the third phase.
The only real rule here is that you ask what you need to know.
Phase One: Character Conception Questions
- Tell me about your community.
- Who are the most important people in your life?
- What’s your favorite song and why?
- How do you spend your days?
- What activity brings you joy?
- What responsibility do you hate?
- Where do you live?
- What would you say is your best physical feature?
- What would you say is your worst physical feature?
- Are you responsible for anyone other than yourself?
- Is anyone else responsible for you?
- Have you ever been in love? Are you in love now?
- What are your pet peeves?
- What is your greatest fear?
- Tell me about your deepest longing.
Phase Two: Character Development Questions
- Describe your perfect day.
- What is the worst thing that ever happened to you in your life before this story?
- What is the best thing that ever happened to you?
- If the world were going to explode and you could only bring one person with you on the escape pod, who would it be and why?
- Tell me about a time when you truly felt safe.
- What would it mean to live as your true, authentic self?
- From your perspective, what is your biggest flaw?
- What do other people say is your biggest flaw? How do you feel about that characterization?
- How do you want others to perceive you?
- Do you believe everyone has a purpose? Do you believe you have a purpose? If so, what is it?
- A hurricane is coming and you have time to grab exactly one object from your home before you evacuate. What object do you choose and why is it so important to you?
- If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
- If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?
- What do you do better than anyone else?
- What does everyone else seem to do better than you?
- Tell me about a time when you surprised yourself.
- What has been your proudest moment? How did you see yourself at the time?
- What values or beliefs were you taught when you were young? Do you still carry those same values and beliefs today?
- From your perspective, what’s really standing between you and your goal? Do other people see it that way?
- Who loves you with all their heart and soul? How does their love make you feel?
- Do you feel you have the life you deserve? If not, what do you deserve?
- Tell me about an enraging experience you had that everyone else thought was no big deal. Why was it so infuriating for you?
- What’s one habit you can’t seem to kick?
- What does it mean to belong?
- What role did/do you play in your family? In your friend group? In your larger community?
Phase Three: Character Clarification Questions
- What is the absolute worst thing that could happen to you at this point in the story?
- What is the best thing that could happen at this point in the story?
- Everybody’s hiding something—a fear, a weakness, a strength, an unpopular opinion. What are you hiding right now?
- How is this moment challenging your beliefs about yourself, the world, or the other people in the scene? If your beliefs are not being challenged, what would make you question everything?
- What’s one thing you would change about the person you love most in the world?
- What’s one thing you admire about your worst enemy?
- Of the many actions you could take at this moment, which would be the most difficult? The most effective? The most terrifying? The least forgivable?
- What do you know now that you didn’t know at the beginning of your arc?
- Who is your ally right now? How do you feel about having this person on your side?
- Who is your enemy right now? How do you feel about being up against this person?
- What is the outcome you’re hoping for? How much would you sacrifice to make it happen?
- What are you still resisting? Is there a specific belief or past experience makes that sense of resistance so strong?
- What is the best memory you share with the person in this scene?
- What is the worst memory you share with the person in this scene?
- In what ways do you see yourself in the person in this scene?
- Do you believe victory is possible at this point? Why or why not?
- Gut check: do you expect people to act in their own self-interest or in the interest of others?
- If someone really wanted to hurt you right now, what should they do?
- Who knows you better than anyone? Do you trust them with that knowledge?
- Who do you wish was here with you now? How would they make things better?
- What power do you hold in this situation?
- What did you dream about last night?
- Tell me the story of this scene like you were recounting it over a beer with your best friend.
- Who has it easier than you in this situation? Are you open to considering the possibility that they actually have it worse?
- Has this journey already changed you? Do you like the change, or do you miss the person you used to be?
Great Character, Great Story
The first time all the Dabble writers got together, we discussed which content to prioritize. This sparked a delightfully heated debate about what matters more in crafting a strong story: character or plot.
I did not chime in, because nothing I would have said would have been as entertaining as the debate that was already raging. My answer to nearly every argument is, “It’s complicated,” and people hate that. I frequently get called “diplomatic,” which—as it turns out—is not a compliment.
But just between you and me, Internet, my answer to this great debate is that it’s an impossible question. Sure, as a reader forced to choose, I’d rather read about a fascinating character who does nothing than a half-baked caricature who has grand adventures.
But as a writer?
As a writer I know that no amount of crazy twists and turns will make my readers care what happens to a protagonist who reads like a talking stack of character traits. I also know that compelling characters make decisions. Loads of them. Hard decisions that result in bigger problems and an engaging plot.
This is what I love about good character development questions. They help us drill down to what actually motivates our characters. Character interviews reveal secrets and feelings and old memories that spark fear and longing and questionable decisions.
Character development questions point us to the cross-section of character and plot, and that’s where the good stuff is.
So open your Dabble Character Notes and get crackin’.
(Don’t have Dabble? No problem! You can try it for free for fourteen days by following this link. You don’t have to enter a credit card, and you get access to all the premium features, from co-authoring to the famous plot grid and more.)
Do you have a story in you? Of course you do! Come write with us for the Dabble Writing Challenge.
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