This was posted to a writer's community (Writer's Discussion Group) on Google+, but I thought I would also post here for more permanent reference.
So, a friend of mine is having trouble with her work-in-progress, figuring out the characters, her world, the plot—everything. And she’s trying to figure this stuff out while writing. She’s pantsing. And that’s fine. But there are some things that you need to plan before writing, whether you’re a pantser or a plotter.
When starting a new project, you need to figure out your characters before everything else. You need to know them through and through, because the best stories are character driven. Your characters’ choices, their mistakes, their past experiences and relationships, their dreams all affect the story.
Over the years, I’ve pulled together a character questionnaire for my work, tweaking others’ character worksheets and creating questions of my own. I wish I had the original sources for the ones I stole. Now, this isn’t an eye color, hair color, etc. kind of questionnaire. It asks questions that will best reveal conflict for your characters, hopefully in a way that will help you craft an engaging plot.
I shared this with my friend, and now I’m sharing it with you in the hopes that it will help someone else.
Fill out this questionnaire for your main character (protagonist), your villain (antagonist), and your love interest (if you have one) or companion character. Try to answer each with a full sentence or two, and if you can answer "why?", even better.
What one thing would your character sacrifice almost anything to have? What wouldn't they sacrifice?*
What one thing would they sacrifice almost anything to avoid? What wouldn't they sacrifice?*
What is the one belief that your character holds as absolutely true, and they guide their actions by this truth?*
What is the one quality--good or bad--that defines your character, that affects the way they deal with other people and the way others deal with your character?
What is the moral line that your character will not cross for any reason? Why?*
What is your character's biggest dream? What do they want more than anything? Why do they want it?
Who or what is keeping your character from achieving their dream? Who or what stands in their way?*
What is your character's fatal flaw? What aspect of themselves must they overcome in order to be a better person?*
What is something your character wants to change about themselves? (could be physical imperfection or aspect of personality)
What makes your character angry? What is the one thing that could turn them from being in a good mood to livid?
How does your character deal with anger?
What makes your character sad? What is the one thing that could cause them to burst into tears?
How does your character deal with sadness?
What embarrasses your character more than anything else?
How does your character handle embarrassment?
What is your character afraid of? (could be superficial phobias or true fears)
What is your character's worst habit?
What prejudices does your character have? Where did those prejudices come from?
What is one item that is special to your character, that they would hate to lose? Where did they get that item?
Who is your character's closest friend or family member? What happened to bring your character close to this person?
Describe your character's family--mother, father, guardians, siblings, children, pets. How does your character feel about each of them?
Once you answer all of these questions (and you should answer every single one!), you can start figuring out the superficial stuff--eye color, age, hair color, etc. But most importantly, read over your answers. You should be able to find some sort of conflict in there, especially with the questions I marked with asterisks.
To find your plot, figure out what would be the hardest path for your character to achieve the thing they want the most, the thing that they need. Figure out what obstacles would make them change as a person, either internally through their perspective of the world and their morals, or externally, through their position in the world. If you can come up with a conflict that tests both external and internal change in the main character, that's even better.
You don't have to plot out the entire story once you have these conflicts, but you do need to pre-plan your character's struggles.
Where do you want them to be by the end of the story?
What will make it hardest for them to get there?
Who could help them?
Who would want them to fail?
Answer those questions, and you’re well on your way to figuring out your story. :)
If you have any questions or comments, I’d love to hear them!