"What Is Your Biggest Shame?" And Other Character Tricks

One of the hardest aspects of writing is building deep, complex, believable characters. Characters with meat on their psychic bones, who you care about, root for, cry with. Characters who have relatable issues but rise above - or sink under the surface and are mourned. One-dimensionality is something to be strictly avoided whenever possible with any character, regardless of their place in your story. But for your heroes and heroines, they need even more.

So how do you write these kinds of characters? The ones readers chomp at the bit to find out more about?

Years ago, one of my writer buddies, the divine Jennifer Brooks, came up with a brilliant solution to this quandary. She was writing a book with an omniscient POV and several main characters. The BMW’s (my critique group) were having trouble keeping all of them straight, and we badgered her to do something about our inability to “get” who was who. (Many times, POV problems are a result of not knowing your characters as well as you should. If you know exactly how your character will react in a certain situation, what they’ll say, how they’ll feel, your POV will fall into place.)

Have you ever been sent an email survey by one of your friends, the kind that has a huge list of questions that either you or said friend must fill out? They ask detailed questions that are meant to show how much you really know someone. My friend, in all her brilliant glory, decided to fill out the survey as her characters. Since many of her characters were in relationships or strong friendships, she allowed the characters themselves to ask the questions of their friends and lovers. It gave her a stronger grasp of who each character is and how they could be presented in the story to help us, the readers, keep them straight. It worked wonderfully. The characters came alive for her readers. And, I daresay, for the author herself.

I've used this trick several times in the past, and I know with the internet this advice has circulated a lot. But just the other day, another divine writer, Paige Crutcher, asked about getting deeper into a character, and I suggested this method. She found the Proust interview and sent it along, which I've included here. It's as good a kickoff point as any I've seen to get into your character's head. 

Just FYI, this is a bastardized version of the Proust Questionnaire. Here's a link to the story behind this, and the original interview, too

  • What do you consider your greatest achievement?
  • What is your idea of perfect happiness?
  • What is your current state of mind?
  • What is your favorite occupation?
  • What is your most treasured possession?
  • What or who is the greatest love of your life?
  • What is your favorite journey?
  • What is your most marked characteristic?
  • When and where were you the happiest?
  • What is it that you most dislike?
  • What is your greatest fear?
  • What is your greatest extravagance?
  • Which living person do you most despise?
  • What is your greatest regret?
  • Which talent would you most like to have?
  • Where would you like to live?
  • What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
  • What is the quality you most like in a man?
  • What is the quality you most like in a woman?
  • What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
  • What is the trait you most deplore in others?
  • What do you most value in your friends?
  • Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
  • Whose are your heroes in real life?
  • Which living person do you most admire?
  • What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
  • On what occasions do you lie?
  • Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
  • If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
  • What are your favorite names?
  • How would you like to die?
  • If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be? 
  • What is your motto? 

I posit that this list is missing one of the biggest, most important, juiciest character building questions of all time, so I will add it here.

  • What is your biggest shame? What is the one thing you hide from everyone, even, sometimes, yourself?

Know that, and you will know your character's true nature, and their heart.

And just to explain the picture above, my all-time favorite meaty character is the one and only Heathcliff. I know, I know, but I am a sucker for the Byronic hero.

Who is your favorite meaty character? And if you have tips or tricks for building them, feel free to add them in the comments.