Chapter 28: 10 Questions to Ask Your Characters

Almost every novel’s top five main characters can be broken into these five categories: protagonist, antagonist, sidekick, mentor, and love interest. In a later blog, I will go into more specifics about each of these roles, but for now, I’m going to go over ten major questions to ask these characters in order to flesh them out and give your book quality characters to make the reader fully invested in their story. Some are simpler to answer than others, of course.  You might not think a name is anything more than just that, but I disagree.  I think this Japanese proverb says it best: Tigers die and leave their skins; people die and leave their names.  So without any further ado, here are the 10 questions to ask your main characters:

  1. What is their name? Every author has a different method to naming their characters. There are some other questions to consider when answering this one. What is their culture? What year is it? Some authors like to look up the meaning of names to help them decide. A good website for that is Behind The Name. If you’re writing fantasy, a good method could be finding a real name and altering it slightly. A good example of this is Eddard from Game of Thrones – changing the name Edward into a more gritty sounding name to fit the character.

  2. What role do they play to add to the plot? This can be protagonist, antagonist, sidekick, mentor, love interest, temptor/henchmen, skeptic, emotional, logical, etc. How will their existence complicate or propel forward the plot?

  3. What is their primary goal? Answering this question helps create such complicated plots like in Game of Thrones. (Can you tell I like the series from my many references?) What does their happy ending look like? What are they willing to do to achieve this goal? How does this goal align with the protagonists? How does it interfere with or what roadblocks does it bring to the protagonist’s goals? Will they get said happily ever after?

  4. What are their strengths? If they were being interviewed for their role in the plot, what would they say? A good place to start is answering if they appeal to ethos, pathos, or logos. In the terrible situations they get themselves into during the plot, how can they contribute to the plan to get themselves out of trouble or accomplish some heroic action? A good example is Hermione’s abundance of knowledge and common sense of preparation helps Harry Potter get out of several sticky situations. Another thing to think about is if there’s a trait that acts as a strength in one instance but a weakness in others. This is like how Scarlett in Caraval unconditionally loves her sister.  It gives her the strength to push past several emotionally draining situations; however, it also leaves her less cautious as she feels more desperate throughout the book.

  5. What are their weaknesses? Same as strengths, but obviously in reverse. If the story needs the character’s team to fail in that plot point, how would they contribute to that failing? Their impatience? Anger? Naivety? Cockiness? Stupidity? This is the entire principle that the series of The Agency is written around: a societal male underestimation of women that the protagonist spy takes advantage of continuously in her adventures.

  6. How old are they? This will largely contribute to several of their characteristics because the following answer must be answered: what kind of environment did they grow up in? There’s often the said cycle of: strong men lead to good times lead to weak men lead to bad times lead to strong men, and onward. Also, did they deal with certain discriminations that took place before the plot begins?

  7. What is their connection to protagonist? How do they know each other? If they have a history together, at the very least summarize it for yourself so that it can contribute to their relationship. Does the protagonist like them? Do they like the protagonist? Is there anyone in particular that they are close to or care about?

  8. What is their occupation? How a person chooses to earn money says a lot about them. Could their occupation add to the contribution of why their an asset to the team? An example of this is Philo in The Scorpion King and how is knowledge of science from his job as a court magician helps save the ‘good guys’ more than once.

  9. How will you introduce this character? Is their depiction in that first scene true to their character or do you want to give some misdirection? How much does the reader know about them at their first appearance? Do you want them to be mentioned before officially meeting them or do the readers only know what the protagonist describes at the first hello?

  10. How are they different in the beginning of the story versus the end? In order to be believable, every character needs a growth arc. A good example of this is following Claire Danvers in the Morganville Vampires series. While several of her main characteristics stay the same throughout the books, her bravery grows and her strengths against the varying antagonists shifts.