Checklist or No Checklist? And What are the Questions?

IMG_4043Hi Everybody,

In the last post we talked about how exposure to your characters’ feelings will help readers to care about them. I hope that today’s post, and the post following, will help you to know and understand your characters better. And then I have a guest post on character for you, from a novelist .

Problem: It looks as if I need to know my characters much better to understand their feelings and desires. Will a Character Checklist help?

A checklist, which could be in the form of a tick sheet or questionnaire, is, at its most basic, a record of biographical details that a writer makes about a character in order to decide how the character will behave, and what it will be capable of achieving, in a story.

Using a checklist may work well for some of you while others will prefer less prescriptive methods of getting to know their characters. I think it’s certainly a method worth trying to see if it works for you. You might not want or need to use a checklist every time you create a character but there could be times when you feel there something is missing and it could help you discover what you need to know.

The trick to getting the most out of a character checklist is to  discover what fits your needs as well as the demand it ought to be making on you, if it is to be truly useful.

Learn what suits you…
….by looking through writing books that contain character checklists. You don’t need to be restricted to just one of them. Why not try a few, take anything what find useful from each and draw up one of your own?  You could finish up with a list of  facts, a list of skills and attributes, a list of questions  or a combination of these. You can then alter or remove some of these and add others that seem relevant. Allow some time to discover what works for you.

Regard it as only a starting point…
… an aid, an initial means of recording important details about characters to make them more rounded and ensure that their actions in your story will be appropriate for the type of person they are. You will probably use only a tiny fraction of the information you record in a checklist because you will use it only if you need to. Just knowing your characters well will help you write more convincingly because you will integrate what you know more naturally into your story as you write, rather than trying to fit things in as you think of them, later on.

Expand it...
…to discover more that you could add. Move from basic facts to something more dramatic, like a pivotal incident in your character’s life. What happened in the past to create the person they are now? Did he join an army, or a band? If he obsessively collects something, when and why did it start?  If she is in a wheelchair how did it happen? Is she ill? Was there an accident?  You might imagine she has a low voice when she speaks but how does she communicate? What would she say? What would he say in a message left on an answer machine?  Experiment with writing short pieces where your characters speak, to bring them alive.

Unearth only what is interesting and relevant…
…when you are answering a questionnaire, or recording a fact. Look  for a particular habit a character may have, something they do repeatedly for example, or the way they use their hands when they speak. Think about what makes them unhappy, what concerns them, what they enjoy, how they live and (very important) what kind of work they do. Other details, such as their favourite food or colour are often (but not always) irrelevant. You need to decide what matters. There may be a significant reason why your character hates yellow.

Look to the past…
…into their background to find out what made them who they are. If your character is angry, what made them that way? Is it anger caused by jealously, humiliation, or a need for revenge? Can the character change, even a little? What would help them make that change? Would it be genuine? Understanding your character is crucial, so consider not just the details but the reasons for them.

See the danger...
…of a checklist becoming a brief question and answer session, a simple profile of a character without any deeper exploration, understanding or empathy from you.

Another danger is that checklists create a static character when it is so important that you see your character as a moving, acting, being. If your character is clumsy, can you visualize this in action? Without having to put the character into a story, try writing a short paragraph about how they behave in a bar for example, or in their own kitchen, bedroom, or garden. How have they organized this space of theirs? How will you show this without just stating that they are untidy or excessively neat?

Consider your story…
… and whether this emerging character is right for the one you had in mind.  As your characters grow more real to you, they may begin to suggest a different story from the one you originally planned to write. You might need to make adjustments to the character or the plot for a better fit. Or, like many writers, you might prefer to begin with the character and create a whole story from what you have learned about them.

If checklists don’t interest you…
…there are  other ways of gaining insight into a character.

Try this:

Try working outwards from a piece of conversation that you overheard. I once heard a woman (that I couldn’t see because she was behind a display stand) in a garden centre, say conspiratorially to someone “Well, you know how I feel about marigolds.” Think about what the tone might reveal. What sort of person would say a thing like that?  What could have happened in her life to give rise to that remark? Alternatively, If there is someone you saw, (on a street or through a bus window, for example) who has stayed in your mind for some reason, you could expand on that image. Why were they there? What seemed to be wrong, etc? You could even start from an idea, such as great kindness in a person but where it has become a problem. What sort of person would be too kind? Why? How would this manifest itself?  What problems would it create? And so on. These methods can be as fruitful as a checklist; it depends what suits you.

Or this:
Choose one of your own character traits, maybe not the most obvious one, exaggerate it and give it to a character. If you don’t sleep very well, make your character an insomniac. If you are a woman, make your character a man and put them in a different town. Give them a job you once had or one you know a little about. Write in the first person so you can think their thoughts. This puts the character closer to you and might give you an easier starting point.

Or this:
Take three of your friends and construct a character from aspects of each of them. It doesn’t matter if these seem to conflict. A passive person who is quietly angry with the world will be more realistic than an obviously aggressive angry person, who might come across as a stereotype. Give this new ‘person’ a completely different way of speaking and something that they want to do. See where this takes you.

The good and not-so-good checklist.
From the many checklists I have come across, I find that most don’t fire my imagination at all, because the questions seem arbitrary, unnecessary and sometimes quite ridiculous. Maybe they just don’t suit me, my characters, or my kinds of stories. However, there is one checklist that I think is particularly useful for writers, especially those just starting out. It is a questionnaire type of checklist and stands out for me because it asks for more than facts, because each of its thirteen questions are accompanied, in brackets, with a brief note explaining why the question is relevant to writing a story and because each question is aimed directly at the character. You get to interrogate your own character, who provides you with answers. I think you will find that the questions are interesting and thought provoking and lead to useful answers. And of course you can always add more of your own questions.

A bonus…

I am going to reproduce the great checklist I mention above, in its entirety, in my next post. I have kind permission from the author and publisher which I will reveal later in the post, together with details of the very useful book that contains the questionnaire and the website to go to for further information.

Next Post: An Extremely Useful and Not-To-Be-Missed Checklist.

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