I snort when I laugh. A lot of people think it’s funny. Some people even find it cute. I don’t mind it much—except when I’m in, like, a business meeting or Yale interview. (Didn’t get in. I’m convinced it’s because I not only snort/ laughed, but did so while drinking a glass of water—which spurted out my nose and into my lap. But I digress.) The point is that this is a little detail about me that makes me memorable. Presenters can always tell that I am in an audience by the snorting that happens after their jokes.
Characters are a mass of details. When a character is believable, we say that he or she is “fleshed out,” meaning that they seem like a real human being. I have heard lecturers and workshop leaders go on and on about this topic. Here’s a very detailed list of questions to ask your character from Gotham Writers’ Workshop (and Proust). Here are nine questions from Writer’s Digest. These are based on the oft-repeated advice, “Authors must know everything about a character.” I’ve even heard someone say, “You should know what’s in your character’s spice rack!”
Friends, I am here to tell you this: The spice rack does not matter. (Caveat: It could matter if it contains poison, if your character is a chef and has an exceptional spice rack, or if you are writing a scene in which your character spices something with great verve.) These above questionnaires are, I’m sure, very helpful to some. But, to me, they seem a bit like writing from the outside in. A question like, “When you walk into a party, what do you notice first?” could tell you something about a character, I suppose. Or it could tell you absolutely nothing.
As I said earlier, characters are a mass of details. However, those details should not be random. They should have meaning, relevance, and resonance. And—here is the most important bit—they should be balanced by personality details: shyness, intelligence, sense of humor, desire for order, impulsiveness, and so on. Therefore, if you were to have a character detail like “laugh snorting,” you can give that meaning by creating a character who is shy, and therefore embarrassed by her snorts. Or one who is extroverted, and loves to hear herself snort. Or one who has little sense of humor, and snorts very rarely—making it a big surprise when she busts one out. I’m currently reading Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. The fact that Harriet is a spy is central to her character, and central to the plot. She is creative and highly observant (personality traits), and is using her powers to learn how to be a writer. Other details—the way she dresses, what she sees, what her bedroom is like—are all informed by these central traits. It is important to know the personality first, and craft the details from there.
With that in mind, here is my own Very Short Character Questionnaire:
- What is the best thing about your character?
- What is the worst thing about your character?
- What does your character want most?
- What do others notice about him/ her right away?
- What is the trait that could get him/ her into trouble? (Often correlates with #2.)
- What is the trait that could get him/ her out of trouble? (Often correlates with #1.)
Once you know the answers to those questions, you can go ahead and find details that make sense. You can answer the other questionnaires, if you like. But seriously—forget the spice rack.