Some of you know I’m big on characterization in fiction. Yes, novels must also have plots, a theme, and all sorts of other stuff…but characterization is at the top of my list. (My friend and author, James Scott Bell, and I will be debating this topic again at the Oregon Christian Writer’s Conference this summer. I enjoy these exchanges immensely and the audience seems to like them too).

Like many novelists, I’ve composed an interview sheet for characters applying for parts in my books. I really need to get to know them well if I’m to determine if their story is worth telling. On my list are all the usual questions, such as:

* where were you born?
* what is your worst memory from childhood?
* what’s your political persuasion?
* who was your first love?

And so on. I have two pages of questions I ask, and of course most of the information will never appear in the book. The questions are simply designed to help me get to know the character. My final question is my favorite one and the answer usually doesn’t come from the character at all….it comes from….well, to be honest, I don’t know where. That question is: how will this character die? Even if he or she doesn’t die in the book, I’d like to know how and at what age (presumably years after the book ends) the character dies.

I bring this up now because I was just looking at an article that quotes William E. Barrett, author of Lillies of the Field. He brings another interesting element to this discussion that I’ve not thought of . He writes:

“I give each character a name and also a twelfth birthday observance. I have to know each person and in a formative stage. The twelfth birthday just struck me as being a time when somebody is shaping. He’s neither one thing or another. When I know a person when he’s twelve years old and still dominated by adults, and he’s got his own mind reaching out for things, it’s a very good time. I know his comrades, the people he plays with, his adults, his parents, all the casuals that come into his life. It makes me feel I know the character before I start to write a book about him.”

I like that. Age twelve. Yes, I think that knowing what was happening in the life of my now adult character when he or she was twelve would help me immensely in understanding his or her present situation. I’ll be adding that twelfth birthday observance to my list.

But while we’re at it, do any of you have interesting questions you ask your characters as you get to know them in their pre-book existence?

4 replies
  1. Michelle Shocklee
    Michelle Shocklee says:

    Wow. I have never, ever thought about how/when my characters will eventually die! I don’t know if I can ask/answer that question either. I guess in my mind I figured they would live eternally as I’ve created them. Interesting thought though. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Rosslyn Elliott
    Rosslyn Elliott says:

    This characterization interview brings up one of the hardest aspects of writing romance.

    In real life, young people are usually less complex than older people. Older people have had more time to accumulate distinctive behaviors and opinions, as well as histories that cause them to react strongly to certain cues. But the lead characters in a romance are almost always young–under thirty in most historical romances. So how do we write young characters who are as interesting as our older characters?

    For me, the most fun part of creating a young character is the bildungsroman part–the tension between a young person’s initial passivity/naivete and her emerging personality and engagement with the world. Because novels nowadays must drive forward at a quick pace, novelists often write *very assertive* young characters who lose the ambivalence and exploratory quality that makes youth interesting.

    Our challenge is to keep the action of a novel moving forward without resorting to character choices that lose the realism of younger life stages.

  3. Erin J.
    Erin J. says:

    In my WIP my characters are influenced by their childhood relationship with their fathers. It’s not a theme of the book, but having a clear idea of what happened in previous years between them and their fathers very much influences how they react to the older male protagonist in the story.

    Beyond that, having an idea of various childhood experiences helps me get to know my characters very well. In my mind I watch the home videos they have taken in their own memories. The high points and low points that shaped their now adult life.

    I think one of my favorite parts of both reading and writing are the friendships formed between a reader and the characters in a book.

  4. Shannon Dittemore
    Shannon Dittemore says:

    As a YA Fiction writer, I find that the relationship a teen has with their parents is crucial to the story. Developing this aspect of my characters has often resulted in themes presenting themselves on the pages that I hadn’t intended, but find myself pleasantly surprised with. In a way, I find it almost an homage to how my parental relationships have molded and changed me.


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