I just came across this great book entitled “Riding The Alligator” by Pen Densham – an Oscar nominated filmmaker with 16 features and over 300 hours of TV under his belt. In one of the chapters in his book, he provides a check list of questions every writer and director should ask of themselves when they are developing their characters. Think of it like a questionnaire you would have your characters fill out. The idea is not necessarily to answer every question on the list, but to see if any of the questions open up your own understanding of who or what your characters might be. This is essentially for motivating your characters choices, reactions and dialogue through the story.
What’s most important, beyond answering these questions, is deducing how your character feels about each of these answers. So for example, how does he/she feel about her weight? What’s his/her attitude toward her family? These will help motivate dialogue and the actions of your characters. A great exercise is to work backwards by using some of the best characters in past movies or TV shows and see if you can have answers for these questions. Who is Forrest Gump’s mother and how does his attitude toward her. What are some of Indiana Jones’ vices?
Whether your a writer or a director, it’s important to know these answers in order for your characters to carry your story. Of course, these are by no means the only questions you should be asking of your characters, but it’s a great starting point to get you thinking of who your characters really are.
Ethnic background? Its status in character’s life? Skin color/ nationality? What languages spoken?
Social class/present status/Would like to be?
Position in family: orphan, single child, firstborn leader, youngest spoiled?
Parents: happy, separated, divorced?
Father’s career/mother’s career?
Parents’ beliefs, prejudices, fears, darkest secrets?
RELATIONSHIPS WITH OPPOSITE SEX
Married, dating, single, divorced, has children/out of wedlock?
Major love interest(s)? Compatible/incompatible?
Sexual preferences: heterosexual, homosexual? Hang-ups, morals?
PERSONALITY / HOPES AND FEARS / PSYCHOLOGY
Whose deaths affected characters? Was there a tragedy in the past?
What or who intruded on or abused them? Good influences? Bad influences?
What kind of education? Intelligence level? Favorite subjects/things hated?
Work or occupation: attitude to work. A slave? Wealthy and lazy?
Skills bank/abilities: adaptable to a new skill? Obsolete skills?
Beliefs: religious, atheist, Zen, philosopher, spiritual?
Believes in luck? Scientist? Ethics or lack of?
Health: fitness to illness. Life expectancy?
Vices? Drugs: medical drugs, illegal?
Hobbies, pastimes, sports, gambler, risk taker?
Major emotional events in life: loss/gain, regret/success?
Judge of character: gullible, astute, a Sherlock Homes?
Position in community?
Major personal obstacle (to overcome or be overcome by)?
Shy? Introverted? Outgoing extrovert (with whom?) Confident? Fear of failure?
Fears, phobias (from spiders to OCD)?
Secret in past, evil, a surprise, unique?
Pessimist, optimist, resigned, defeatist? Sense of humor (or lack of)?
Fashion style (sloppy/fastidious)? Dreamer procrastinator?
Driven, active militant?
Major outside hero influence (sports figure, superhero, famous real person)?
What books/literature heroes influenced by? The Bible? Harry Potter? Time Magazine? Shakespeare?
Who would they be if they could be someone else? If they could be anywhere else, where?
Would describe self as…..?
What characteristics emerge under pressure? Relationship with animals? Pets?
What do they dream? What is in their nightmares?
What animal characteristics do they embody: elephant memory, slithery like a snake, loyal like a dog?
Characteristics of a villain or hero in history that would transplant.
What terrible things happened to damage them.
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