40 Questions to Help Develop Your Character’s Backstory
Roleplayers are often laughed at, mocked, or ridiculed for playing the role of a specific character. A good roleplayer will act as if they were the character in all ways. They put a lot of time into one character that they emulate. They will often create a character with an elaborate backstory that explains how they became who they are today. But without strategies such as those that roleplayers employ, where would we find great literary characters?
Instead of laughing at them, we as writers should learn their ways. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to run down to your local LARP group and sign yourself up (although it could be a fun learning experience). But what makes a roleplayer tick in creating a character? And shouldn’t we as writers attempt to make characters as endearing to our readers as roleplayers make to their roleplay friends?
Here is a list of forty questions that I think every writer should answer about every major character in their story. Even if the information does not show up in the writing, it still gives the writer a way to connect with the character and perhaps allow them to write a more compelling character.
- What is the character’s full name? Does it mean something or was it randomly given by the parents?
- How old is the character when first introduced? Does the story jump ahead years later or is the character the same age throughout the story?
- Is the character a man or a woman? Or, in certain cases, something other than the standard genders?
- How tall is the character? How much does he or she weigh?
- What is the character’s race? This can mean anything from Asian or Black in our current world, to an elf or dwarf in a fantasy world.
- What does the character look like? Describe their hair, the features of their face, how muscular they are, or if there are any visible markings, tattoos, birthmarks, scars, or blemishes.
- What alignment would they fall under? I like the Dungeons and Dragons model of alignment, as it can be applied to any character in any type of genre. There is a 3×3 grid with one axis dealing with whether the character is good, neutral, or evil and the other axis brushing on if the character is lawful, neutral, or chaotic. Click <here> for a more in-depth article on the nine alignments, including popular examples of characters or people who fall into each category.
- What is the character’s title or position? Are they a knight in the queen’s personal guard? Maybe an intern at a local attorney’s office? A navigator aboard the Starship Zoloft?
- What clothing does the character own or wear? A large wardrobe? A standard set of clothing with maybe an extra or two?
- Does the character carry any weapons?
- What items or valuables does he or she possess, and how important are they to the character?
- Describe the character’s home. Do they live alone or with someone? Are they renting or visiting a domicile or do they own it?
- Do they have any pets?
- What is the character’s usual mode of travel? Do they use other methods for travelling?
- How about pet peeves, because those are fun. What really gets under your character’s skin?
- Do they have any habits, good or bad, that they just can’t control?
- What are some of their hobbies?
- Do they have any secrets? What would happen if their secret became known?
- What are the character’s likes, dislikes, phobias, preferences, etc? This could include anything from foods to lands, creatures, smells, temperatures, buildings.
- Every good character has to have some sort of strengths. What are this character’s strengths, including knowledge?
- How about weaknesses?
- Does the character follow any sort of religion, or what beliefs do they hold?
- Does the character have a motto? A quote they live their life by.
- Who were this character’s parents? How about guardians?
- Does the character have extended family like brothers and sisters? Aunts, uncles, grandparents?
- Who are the character’s friends?
- Do they have any enemies? Do they know about their enemy?
- Are there any people the character would consider an acquaintance?
- What is the character’s marital status? Do they have any children?
- Where did they grow up? What was life like for them growing up how they did?
- Did they ever suffer any injuries?
- What are some memorable events the character holds on to, or even some they had forgotten about?
- Are they educated? Who taught or mentored them?
- What is their social standing? Are they poor, a noble, a struggling merchant?
- Did they receive any inheritance?
- Describe the character’s magical skills, if any.
- How does the character engage in combat? What weaponry, tactics, physical or magical methods do they employ?
- What are their physical skills? Are they good at climbing, swimming, acrobatics?
- How is their communication? Do they communicate with nature or spirits? How well do they communicate with other people? What languages do they know?
- Do they have any special knowledge? Are they logical? Creative? Do they know everything that can be known about auto repair?
Granted, not all of these questions will apply to every character or genre. But if you fill out as many of these questions as you can, you will have the material to create a fantastic character bio. Happy writing!