The Evil Banker theory of richer character development

When we create characters, we tend to see them in terms of their function in our story. Got an evil banker? You probably know something about his history as a banker – where he’s worked, who his professional connections are, perhaps something about his education, etc.

But some of your readers may not be bankers. To them, the details of your banker’s banking life may not connect to their own reality. He becomes a cartoon, because he only has that one dimension: money guy.

So how do you give him depth? Come on inside and I’ll tell you about one technique that I use for quickly getting to the heart of my characters.

Even the ones that don’t have a heart.

For many of your readers, what will matter are the aspects that humanize him. Was he bullied in highschool? Has he ever made a fool of himself trying to impress a girl? These are common human experiences that we can sympathize with, and it’s these more universal aspects of your character’s existence that make him relatable. After all, most of your readers are likely to be human, right? So use that. By thinking about your banker as a person, and then exploring and conveying his humanity, you allow your readers to more readily connect to him, regardless of any shameful ignorance they may have of banking lore.

But how do you discover your character’s broader humanity?

One of the techniques I like to use is to conduct a quick interview with my characters, but not just any old interview. No, sir. You see, it’s long been known that human memory is more vivid, and more readily retrieved, when we access it in relation to some physical object. I could ask you to tell me about Christmas when you were 10, and you would remember some predictable platitudes and schmaltz. But if I ask you to tell me about the best Christmas present you ever opened, I’d get a much more vivid and specific story out of you.

So that’s a trick I like to apply to characterization. Instead of asking boring “What’s your favorite flavor of nail polish?” kinds of questions, I use more specific, probing ones that will hook you into specific memories from your own life, or details from stories other people have told you. Such questions reveal the rich mental life and experiences that lie behind every human being. By retrieving such stories and assigning them to your characters – or making up variants – you can’t help but humanize them. Here are twenty such questions to get you started. Pick five that seem interesting and see where they lead you. (And yes, the questions for children characters are different. But that will be the subject of a later posting.)

  1. What was the cause of your first significant childhood injury?
  2. What do you think your 18-year-old self would think of who you are today?
  3. What is the greatest missed or declined opportunity from your life history, and how might that other path have changed who you are today?
  4. What do you regard as the single most significant flaw in the way our modern world works?
  5. Which single thinker, writer or artist has been the most influential on defining who you are today, and how does that influence show up in your current life?
  6. If you could choose one single point in history to rewrite, what would you choose, how would you have changed the script, and what do you hope would have been the result of that change?
  7. Who was the most inspiring or outrageous character to spring from your family tree?
  8. If you could split yourself into you plus 4 duplicates in order to get more done, with no chance of anybody finding out, what aspects of your life would you assign to each of your dopplegangers and which duties would you keep for yourself?
  9. What was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you in public school?
  10. When was the last time you hit somebody or somebody hit you, and what caused it?
  11. Describe the personality or role you played in your childhood family while growing up, and how has that role followed you into adulthood?
  12. What was the first thing you can remember saving money for, how did that purchase make you feel at the time, and do you still have whatever it was that you bought?
  13. Who was the first person you knew who died, and how did their death effect you?
  14. What one thing from your past do you always lie about or conceal when talking to new acquaintances?
  15. What one thing that other people always seem to do makes you crazy with rage?
  16. What is the most surprising or generous thing somebody has ever done for you out of the blue?
  17. When was the first time you can remember having been alone in nature? Where were you, why were you there, and how did it make you feel?
  18. When was the first time you can remember being alone in the downtown part of a city? Where were you, why were you there, and how did it make you feel?
  19. Have you ever felt overwhelmed in the midst of another culture? Where were you, why and what was so overwhelming about it?
  20. What is the most exciting or impressive thing that you expected or believed would happen to you, that didn’t end up happening?

As you can see, it isn’t these 20 questions that are important so much as it’s the kind of questions in the set. Notice how each of them is tied to probing a specific, relatively common experience, and is phrased in an open style, which begs to be filled in with a story.

I don’t think I’ve ever applied all 20 questions to any one character. I usually pick and choose four or five that seem particular relevant to them and to the aspects of their history/personality that I am most curious about. And sometimes, I find that I need to write special additional questions. But by the time you’ve answered two or three, you’ll find yourself well on your way to a richer new understanding of this pseudo-person you’re creating.

Don’t forget to say hello to him for me.


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About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.