How to Get to the Core of a Character – Part 1: Backstory, or Introducing Core Questions

Journeypen Logo - v1“Do you have any hobbies?” asked Courtney, the very first time I met her.

I froze, trying to think, one hand poised over my fries.

My editor had taken me and my agent, Jo, out to lunch at a very fancy restaurant in New York. I’d been there before, with my best friend, back when I actually lived in New York, and I’d actually recognized a few of my former coworkers in the restaurant as I’d walked in.

I was still horrifically nervous, because:

  1.  Courtney had acquired Of Giants and Ice more than six months before but hadn’t given me editorial notes yet. Naturally, this led to me being terrified that she would change her mind, that Simon and Schuster would rip up the contract, cancel the series, and crush all my hopes and dreams.
  2. I also had a sinus infection. I’d forgotten to take any ibuprofen, so I was running a touch of fever and attempting to hide it.
  3. I was a new author. During the first part of the journey, you’re just a bundle of nerves and self-judgment—no exceptions.

“What do you do for fun?” Courtney prompted again, as if she thought—in all my nerves—I’d forgotten what a hobby was.

That wasn’t it. I couldn’t think of any hobbies. I couldn’t think of anything I’d done for fun in a long time. That month, I’d helped my parents move from the house where we’d lived for more than twenty years to another bigger home that needed renovation. I’d spent my time doing a lot of not fun, non-writerly things, and it had worn me out so badly that I’d gotten sick.

I finally muttered an answer about knitting and going to see movies with friends, and then the conversation moved on to talking about our pets.

But that question nagged at me. What did I do for fun? What were my hobbies? All I did was write and read and sleep and cook sometimes and help my parents out and talk to my best friends via Whatsapp and Gchat. That made me a boring person, and if I was a boring person, then my books were going to be boring too and no one was going to read them and aaaaghhhh, my life was over—

Like I said, during the first leg of the journey to becoming an author, you’re just a bundle of nerves and self-judgment.

Later on, I realized that the only answer I could have given would have sounded SUPER weird:

I study people.

That’s the only hobby I’ve consistently kept for the last decade. I am fascinated by the characters that surround me. No matter how busy I am, I always make time for unraveling people’s facades and trying to discover what makes them tick. I analyze what I know of a person’s backstory to figure out why they’re acting the way they’re acting in the present, and then I try to figure out what they need to become the best version of themselves.

(Do I always tell them what I think? No! That would make me insufferable. But thinking people like this is still good practice.)

Every once in a while, I analyze book characters, but more often, it’s people in real life. I analyze family members. I analyze friends—new and old. I analyze people I meet randomly and celebrities I’ll never meet.

Sometimes, I do this alone in my journal. Sometimes, I do this in long conversations with my mother, or my best friends, or my sister, or my roommates.

I’ve given it some thought, and I’ve realized that all of my analyses cover the same core questions:

  • What was this person like five years ago? What about ten? How have they changed? Do I think they’ve changed for the better, or are they headed down an unhealthy path?
  • How does this person want to be seen? Is that who they really are? What are they hiding? Why?
  • What was the worst day/period in this person’s life? How did that shape them?
  • What haunts them? What motivates them? (Note: if they have a deep emotional scar, the answer is usually the same.)

Yeah, I know.

These topics are “deep,” but they’re also the ones that interest me. I don’t care much about what someone’s favorite color is or what bands they like to listen to or—yikes—what their hobbies are. I want to know about their darkest moments and how those moments forged them into the person they have become. It’s easier to see the good that people foster in their lives after I’ve taken a steely look at the bad that has happened to them.

These are the same core questions I explore when I’m trying to develop a new character. In fact, I call them “core questions,” because they help me reach the core of who a character is.

I’ve asked myself all of these questions for Rory, Chase, and Lena, and I answered them in freewriting passages, a lot of which doesn’t actually make it into the book. I’ve asked myself the same questions for Rapunzel, Solange, the Director, Hadriane, Hansel, Iron Hans, and almost every rounded side character in The Ever Afters.

Writing relatable, realistic characters stems from a lifelong passion for studying people. It cannot be taught exactly, but it can be practiced. You can teach yourself to learn from the people around you, analyzing them until you’ve learned a little more about how they operate and why, and as your understanding of people grows deeper and more nuanced (a.k.a. messier and more emotional), your characters would grow stronger and more relatable.

Don’t forget: you can and should study yourself. You may not find yourself very interesting—I don’t find myself super fascinating, to be honest—but you’re the only person you will know 24-7 for every single day of your life. That’s a lot of good material that will go to waste if left unexamined. Plus, it’s a lot easier to write powerful, passionate stories if you understand more about what makes YOU tick.

For example, I am interested in the innerworkings of people, what motivates them and what haunts them, and those are the questions that drive my stories.

Disclaimer: As you study people, your compassion grows in leaps and bounds. You feel more for others, which can be really hard sometimes, because people go through tough things pretty consistently. But in my experience, it’s also a lot easier to interact other people and create lasting friendships when you understand where they’re coming from.

ETA: On the Subject of Lasting Friendships

First of all, they’re always a good idea. People should have friends, and they should try to keep them as long as possible.

But they’ve been a particular bonus for me as a writer.

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Pictures taken in 2000, 2002, 2007, and 2011 – You can LITERALLY see us growing up together in these beauties, particularly the one in the upper left.

My closest friends have stayed my closest friends for about a decade and a half, ie. MORE THAN HALF MY LIFETIME. I met them in middle school, which is a) why I thought middle school was so fun and b) why I dedicated Of Witches and Wind to them.

It was also why I could write Rory, Chase, and Lena so well: I didn’t just get to study myself during my school years. I got to study the growth of my friends–tracking the trajectory from who the fun kids they were back then to the awesome, intelligent, kick-butt individuals they are today.

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Pics from 2012, 2013, and 2015 – It’s not that we only see each other for weddings; it’s that we take the MOST PHOTOS at weddings.

The really funny thing is that they’re pretty aware I’m drawing from their lives as well as my own. When one of my friends was going through a rough patch and we were talking about a lot of the drama that was going down, she turned to me and said, “I’m giving you a lot of stuff to write about in your stories, aren’t I?”

Then she smiled–and trusted me to change the names to protect the innocent. 🙂


In tomorrow’s Journeypen Project post, I’ll be talking a little more about how to develop your own core questions and how to use them.

In other words, to be continued….

ETA: You find it here!

One Response

  1. May October 31, 2015