Exploring Backstory: Questions to Ask Your Characters

Recently I’ve run into a bit of a wall. This wall is forty years of intricate backstory. Some of it I know better than my own. Some of it is an utter mystery. However as much as I like to run head first into a story without knowing where it will end up, I also like to have every word drip with approximately 100 different meanings and 1,000 different interpretations. So here I am staring at my computer wondering what they did with their life.

When searching for answers to characterization I personally like to imagine that I’m chatting with a character. Why? You ask. Simply because by framing the question as something the character has to react to, you get both their answer and how they answer the question. Do they respond hesitantly? Or perhaps too quickly? Do they look down, unwilling to meet your eyes? Or maybe they go on a five minute tirade that takes you both by surprise. If you want to be even more meta you can write a scene between two characters asking each other the questions.

It seems a bit strange at first, but it gets you in a character’s head more than a fill in the blank character sheet. I feel like I’m filling out paperwork when I fill out one of those. Physical Description. Check. Personality. Check. Parentage. Check. Just hitting the boxes.

Here are a few to get you started:

1. Explain your earliest memory.

2. How did you meet your best friend?

3. How would your parents/caretakers describe you as a child?

4. Describe the person who has most influenced your life.

5. What do people remember about you?

6. What are your recurring nightmares and dreams?

7. How did you grow up?

8. What have you been jealous of, and why?

9. Describe your biggest regret.

10. What is your greatest accomplishment?

A note about the writing and phrasing of questions: avoid close-ended questions. Close-ended questions can be answered with a single word (or a very short phrase) answer. Sometimes you can avoid these by rewriting or rephrasing the question as an imperative statement.

Taking the first question as an example, when you write it as a close-ended question you would have “What was your first memory?” By switching the language to “Describe your first memory.” then the answer can be expanded upon. Rather than answering “my mom” they are prompted to describe their mother in greater detail. (Unless a two word response is in character, then let their brevity be characterization.) Another way is to simply tack on the phrase “and why” or “and how” to the end of a close-ended question, but that can feel more like an interrogation and less like a discussion.

Now that I’ve written them out it looks a bit like a job interview. Answer the questions well and I’ll hire you as a main character. Your pay is the inevitable pain that comes with being a protagonist. Benefits include an adventure and a potentially happy ending. You can retire when I say “the end.”

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