7 Questions to Ask to Quickly Know Your Character
Imagine you’re on a first date with someone and you want to figure out quickly whether they’re a good match for you. Would it be more interesting and revealing to ask “if you had an extra $1,000 this month, how would you spend it?” or “what is something you really want right now?” Both questions ask the same thing, but the first one reveals not only how they would handle extra cash one month, but also points to their desires. It is also much more likely to get an honest response from this stranger you’re sitting across from, and therefore reveal more information than the second question.
This is because as humans, when confronted with direct questions we often either shy away from the answer, or don’t know what it is in the first place. But hypothetical questions enable us to think of ourselves in a tangible situation, which makes it easier to see exactly what we want. The same goes for asking questions to get to know our characters. When we first create them, we have a lot we need to ask them, and hypothetical questions make that easy!
Hypothetical questions can quickly show our character’s morals, beliefs, behavior towards other people, sense of right and wrong, and so forth, without us feeling like we’re digging for these answers or making information up. As writers, it is often quicker to explore hypotheticals of a character because it enables us to put them in a scene, the place where characters show us who they are. This is preferred to asking direct questions with straight answers, where the answer to “what is your favorite color?” can often feel like we are making these up. In turn, we feel oddly tied to this data we’ve created and make it difficult for our characters to really show us who they are.
Of course, asking direct questions is still helpful, but often it is better to ask “what does my character want?” or “where does my character live?” after you’ve explored hypothetical questions. This is because you’ll have given your character a chance to show you who they are, versus deciding for them beforehand.
Though there are hundreds of hypotheticals you can ask your character—and the more the merrier—below are seven questions to ask your character that each reveal a different aspect of who they are. From their thoughts on wealth to appearance, use these following questions to learn your character on a “first date basis.”
Your character sees a homeless person asking for money. How do they react?
What you learn about: wealth and poverty
As Sirius Black once said, "If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals,” and while someone who is homeless is by no means “inferior,” seeing how your character behaves when someone asks for money is a good indicator of how they see much of the world.
Think about how your character wants to behave versus how they actually behave and any thoughts that run through their mind. Question whether they are they fearful, disturbed, sympathetic, or maybe a mix of all three? Do they smile and walk by but ignore them, or do look for cash to give them? What is their overall attitude not only towards this person, but the perceived effects from helping them out?
Your character’s face is disfigured and so they need to wear a mask for a lifetime. How do they react and what kind do they pick?
What you learn about: appearance and vanity
Whether you or your character want to admit it, appearances are something they think about. Sure, they may not spend hours in front of a mirror, but their look is something they care about, even if they are currently disregarding it.
So, if your character’s face were to become disfigured, suddenly they have a vanity reality check to confront, and there’s no better way to do so than by thinking through what mask they would wear. Ask questions about how they would react and long it might take them to get over this disfiguration. Consider areas of their face they wanted to improve before the disfiguration, and what they would do to change it, or whether they’d want to look likely a completely different person to start a new life completely. Would they want people to recognize them, or would they want to be able to start fresh? Would they want one mask, or several?
Your character receives credit and praise for something they did not do in front of a large group of people they admire. What do they do?
What you learn about: pride and humility
It’s one thing to be excited about something you’ve achieved, but how your character handles being praised for something they didn’t actually do sheds light on how strong their pride is, and whether or not they can humble themselves in front of a group of people they admire.
Think about what steps would your character take to resolve the issue, if any. Would they correct everyone right away and give out credit where credit is due, or would they want to avoid embarrassing the crowd of people? Would they let a friend know privately the truth, or would they continue pretending they had achieved what everyone said they did, at least for now?
If a genie offered your character three wishes, what would they wish for?
What you learn about: desire and greed
We always ask the question “what does my character want?” but sometimes have trouble answering that question. By asking this simple hypothetical (that we’ve all thought through for ourselves) you can quickly learn three things your character wants, and if none of them point to the want that drives your story, they certainly point you there.
When answering this for your character, think about both materialistic desires and less abstract ones. Also consider order of importance—will they go for their big wish first or last—and whether they’d wish for all three things at once or hold onto each wish as long as possible?
Your character moves to a new land that practices a faith they are unfamiliar with. How does this affect their own beliefs?
What you learn about: religious beliefs
It’s easy to list what religion your character practices, but common to overlook how malleable those beliefs are and how they shape your character’s reaction to other people. This question forces you to think about how your character reacts when their own belief system is confronted and whether they are judgmental of a religion they don’t understand. It also helps you comprehend just how quickly your character changes their beliefs or whether they dig their heels in when confronted by something they don’t understand.
When answering this question, think about how malleable your character’s beliefs are. If your character isn’t religious or feels strongly about their current faith, think about their attitude towards this faith. Does it make them uncomfortable or curious? If someone were to invite them to a religious ceremony or service, how would they react, and what does that say about them?
Your character finds out a close friend is cheating on their partner. How do they react both internally and towards their friend?
What you learn about: loyalty
It’s easy to imagine how your character would feel about their own partner cheating on them—pretty upset. But things become more complex when you think about your character’s reaction to their best friend cheating on their partner. Suddenly loyalty and what it means becomes more complex.
Do they tell their best friend’s partner and betray their friend in the process because they don’t want a friend who cheats, period, or do they keep their friend’s secret? Think both about how they would confront their friend—if they’d confront them at all—and how it might shake their feelings about fidelity internally.
Your character finds out their friends have gone on a trip abroad to their favorite destination without them. What do they do?
What you learn about: envy
Anyone who is left out is going to feel envy and jealousy, but to what extent? Ask this question of your character to see how emotional they become, whether they seek revenge, or whether they feel completely betrayed and detached.
Think about where their friends go without them and what that location means to your character. Then think about how your character’s judgment may be clouded or what information—if any—may be missing from the picture. Do they confront their friends directly, or seethe privately? Do they take their own trip with a different group of friends or wallow in self-pity? And most importantly, do they think they can forgive their friends?
While all of these character questions are complex, in asking a few of them of your character you’ll find you quickly have learned a lot about who they are, and maybe a bit about yourself as well. Use these hypothetical questions to spark creativity and see your character in the real world—not just on paper.