How do you get to know your main character so well that you’re sitting inside their head while you tell their story?

Let’s face it, for some characters, it’s easy. They pop into your imagination fully formed and say, ‘Pick me, I’m yours; complete with  flavours and flaws – all ready to leap into the pages of your story”.

With others, you might spend the entire journey trying to wrestle them into shape – perhaps coax them in the direction you want them to go.

One of the things I learned when I was writing Letters to Leonardo is that you have to let your characters follow their own destiny. They’re a lot like your children. You cringe, worry, sit back and watch while they do their own thing and make their own mistakes. But this is what makes them ‘real’. And it’s what makes them ‘real’ to the reader.

So how do you get to know these people who occupy so many of your waking moments, and some of your sleeping ones – and eventually take over your book?

You ask them questions – lots of questions.

More than just age, name and serial number. You want to know about their favourite sport, what they eat for breakfast, what they got on their last report card….and more!

Now be warned; particularly if you’re writing YA, you might not get a lot of cooperation at first. In fact your characters might start behaving like ‘real’ teens, and  respond with grunts and  groans and hmmm, ha? yeah, nuh. My advice to you, don’t accept it! Delve deeper – even if it makes your character annoyed, belligerent and downright angry! Keep going until they have told you everything you need to know.

Ask your character this:

  1. What are your sibling’s most annoying traits?
  2. What do you like about your siblings?
  3. If you had a secret, who would you tell it to?
  4. What are you afraid of?
  5. What makes you happy?
  6. What is your favourite food?
  7. What food makes you want to puke?
  8. Who is your best friend?
  9. Who is your worst enemy?
  10. Describe how you look?
  11. Describe how you think others see you?
  12. Do you have any special interests?
  13. Do you have any special belief systems?
  14. What do you look for in a friend?
  15. What do you look for in a partner?
  16. What are your talents and skills?
  17. Do any of these talents or skills have a down side?
  18. What are the things you like most about yourself?
  19. What are the things you like least about yourself?
  20. How would you describe your childhood?
  21. What are some experiences from your childhood that have affected the sort of person you are now?
  22. How do you feel about discipline?
  23. Are you someone who fits in with society or someone who fights it?
  24. How would you spend a typical day?
  25. What do you want more than anything in the world?
  26. What is the best thing that could happen to you?
  27. What is the worst thing that could happen to you?

If I am stuck at a point in my story; am wondering how to get my character from one place to another, I  have even been known to go back and reinterview them all over again.

If you get to know your main character almost as well as you know yourself, you’ll find they tell their own story. You just have to write it down.

I hope this Tuesday Writing Tip will help you bring your characters to life.

Next week, we’re answering a question from Jessica about point of view. Hope you can join us then.

In forthcoming Tuesday Writing Tips, we’ve got some wonderful authors coming to visit to share their writing tips and secrets.

If you have a writing question, leave it in the comments section of this post, and we’ll try to answer it in a future post.

Thanks for visiting.

You’re also very welcome at my Facebook Group, Dee’s Writing Tips & News. If you’d like to join, visit http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=205664860085

Happy writing.




  1. Since the books I’ve been working on for the past 4 years share characters, this isn’t something I’ve thought about for awhile. But last week I came up with a new book idea, and now I have to get to know some new characters. I generally don’t like fill-in-the-blanks type character questions (my characters seem to form more intuitively) but yours seem interesting, so I guess they’re a good place to start.

    Are you participating in the Kidlit Comment Challenge? You can learn more and sign up here: http://www.motherreader.com/2010/01/comment-challenge-2010.html

  2. Thanks Lisa,

    I always find these questions are a good place to start – and some times they take me in a completely different direction – and raise a whole new set of questions. Thanks for the link to the Kidlit Comment Challenge. I’ll check it out.


  3. Great questions! Sometimes, I like to try to find a picture that looks like my character, too, especially if I am working on a picture book.

    With books for older kids, one of the things i like to ask my characters is what music they like. Then I try to play that genre or song while I’m writing.

    Another category of questions that has helped me is “if you were…”. If you were a bird, what bird would you be? If you were a song, what song would you be?

    Getting to know my characters better always helps me write from a deeper POV.

  4. These are great. I like to interview my characters, too, but you have some questions I haven’t thought to ask them. Will use these for my current wip. Thanks.


  5. You’ve been reading my mind again! Over the past week I’ve been working with my MC (Jason, by name) – but now you’ve given me some more issues to get out of him. He’s being particularly petulant at the moment. But what do expect from a 13 year old?
    So thanks, Dee!

  6. Hi Mabel, hope my post has helped you. You won’t believe it but my MC’s brother in Street Racer is called Jason. So we definitely do think alike:-)


  7. Crikey, Dee. I’m tempted to run my kids through that quiz! Might actually learn something… Okay – so I’m kidding – but it would be interesting.

    In seriousness, I’m with Sheryl – a great set of questions to run through with a teen writing group. It would really get them thinking. (It would also give you authentic answers – which could in turn help to flesh out some of your more unco-operative MCs.)

  8. Great tips, Dee. I’ll use those questions. I just had fun answering them from my MC’s head. The answers made me laugh especially these ones:

    16.What are your talents and skills, Molly?

    Umm. Being sneaky. I love being sneaky.

    17.Do any of these talents or skills have a down side?

    Umm, yes. Sometimes I get caught.

    18.What are the things you like most about yourself?

    Getting away with being sneaky, silly.

    19.What are the things you like least about yourself?

    Duh. Getting caught.

  9. Thanks, Kat,

    I do use this sort of thing with teen writing groups. Then we use the answers that are revealed to form the basis of the plot.


  10. Dee, It was great to read your last info on understanding characters. I am writing my own story at the moment, but need to look back fifteen or so years to be able to describe moments, quite often forgetting what a person you were inacting with was actually like. My story surrounds my miliatry career and some of the operations I went on.
    Much of my writing is in fact done sitting in a Cafe, because I love goood coffee and I find less distractions then writing from home. I find looking up every now and again and seeing people (not staring – but studying their habits and mannerisms will remind me of some of the people I worked with. It is pretty amazing what these things remind you of. But I think asking them questions will be a little intrusive.
    Being somewhat advance into writing these things down, I feel that going back over some of the characteristics of the people tends to change everytime I re-read it and edit. I am somewhat surprised by this.
    Do you have advice that can help in this aspect?



  11. Thanks for dropping in, Luke,

    These questions I suggested actually relate to fictional characters and so you are really asking the questions of your imagination. When it comes to real people, the situation is definitely quite different.

    I find that if my characters (real or imagined) change characteristics in the course of my writing, it’s because I am confused about them in my mind. So in this case I tend to sit down and do a different sort of profile which is usually a more physical one with a physical description of their eye colour, hair colour, mannerisms etc. I print this out and have it with me to refer to when I’m writing. Especially if you are writing about quite a few different people, I think it’s important to do this as it can become confusing. The more you keep referring to the profile of your character, I think the more it cements their characteristics in your mind.

    Hope this helps.

    Good luck with your writing. It sounds like a fascinating story you are working on.


  12. Thanks Chris,

    It can be tedious asking all these questions, but you’re right, it does give you plenty of backstory to work with. It depends how you write of course. My books tend to be more character than plot-based where the story develops from who the character is. But with other genres like fantasy, the story may be more plot-based, and you might need to know more about the setting detail and the world of the character rather than such a detailed background about them – although every character needs a backstory.

    As I said, some characters pop into my head fully formed and don’t need all this work. Others need this kind of ‘interview’ right from the start – and others have a mini interview during the course of the story to help me work out how to get them from ‘A’ to ‘B’.

    Happy writing.


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