Let’s Be Friends! Getting to Know Your Main Character

The main character. The centre of your story (probably), your favourite character (maybe) and the person your readers will almost certainly spend the most time with. You’ve worked out what it is that they want to achieve or obtain by the end of your story, and you’re getting ready to put them through hell on the way to it. But how well do you really know your main character?

In the story I’m writing at the moment I have a main character who is prickly, selfish, immature and honestly pretty unpleasant. My hope though is that, in understanding her myself, I’m able to provide enough context for her brattiness that my readers are willing to give her a chance to learn and do better. If your main character is an absolute delight, helpful and generous to all around them, it can be valuable to have a sense of why that is so that they don’t come across as a doormat.

I think having a firm understanding of your character’s background and personality helps to write them in a way that is consistent and compelling, so that their actions don’t come out of nowhere and it’s easier to root for their success. One tried-and-tested way of doing this is a kind of character interview.

Below, I’ve listed four categories of questions that it can be interesting or useful to ask about your character, either to check what details you’ve already decided on or to get to know them better. I’ve also provided some of my personal favourite examples of each category, although if you’ve got other suggestions, I’d love to hear them!

A white question mark drawn onto a blackboard.
Just like with real people, asking questions can be a great way to get to know your characters.
Image by TeroVesalainen from Pixabay.

Small talk

These are relatively surface-level details, the things that may or may not be part of the character backstory as expressed in your story, but they’re things that it’s worth having a grasp on before you dive in. You don’t want to be mid-way through a scene and suddenly have to go combing through your opening chapters to check whether you said your main character had one or two younger siblings. Plus, you might be surprised at the trains of thought some of these questions kick off!

  • What’s their immediate family? Do they get along with their family?
  • How old are they? When is their birthday?
  • How much time do they spend getting ready in the morning?
  • Do they live alone? If not, who do they live with?
  • What’s their daily routine like, or is every day completely different?
  • Are they tidy?

What’s their favourite?

Most of the answers to these aren’t exactly super important to your plot or character development, but every so often you’ll find yourself coming up with a reason why your character loves that food/colour/time of day that helps you understand them better, so I think there’s value in at least having a look at these. What’s your character’s favourite…

  • Place
  • Food (especially when they’ve had a bad day)
  • Item of clothing
  • Time of day
  • Colour
  • Book/film/story
  • Free-time activity

How would they react?

These ones go a little deeper, giving you a chance to think about how your character’s past experiences and present attitude would inform their responses to different situations. So, how would your character react if…

  • They found out somebody they loved had lied to them?
  • They got held up on their way to an important appointment?
  • They suddenly came into a lot of money?
  • They lost something of value to them?
  • A stranger approached them on the street, claiming to be a long-lost relative?
  • Their home was broken into while they were out?
  • They had to take a test without having time to prepare?

Beliefs and values

These are big ones. The kind of deep-seated views that your character might find being challenged during your story, the things that define how your character views themselves and how they respond to the world around them. So if you haven’t already, I encourage you to have a think about some of these questions.

  • What is something they believe is fundamentally wrong/bad, no matter the context?
  • What is something they think they would never do?
  • What is something they believe to be true, without having any evidence for it?
  • Who do they have faith in?
  • What would they sacrifice to help somebody they love? What would they not sacrifice?
  • Do they believe in doing the ‘right’ thing, no matter who it hurts?
  • What do they think is more important, the results of an action or the intention behind it?
  • Is there one person or thing they would do anything to protect?
  • Do they think they are a good person?

Whether you treat this like a proper character interview, writing out your character’s responses, or just think through the answers to a few that you find most interesting, I believe that working through questions like these help you to get a better handle on who your characters are, what drives them and how they’ll act in the various situations you throw them into over the course of your story.

So there you have it, four types of question I use to get in my main character’s head and make sure I understand her as fully as possible when I’m writing. I’d love to know some of your main characters’ answers to these, and if you have any suggestions of questions to add please leave them in the comments below! Alternatively, do you have other ways you prefer to get to know your characters? Please share them!

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