How much do you need to know about your characters before you start writing with them?

How well do you need to know them?

Some of this depends on the piece you’re writing: a screenplay is different to a novel is different to a journal style piece, and on it goes.

But some things are needed for whatever you’re writing.

What do they want to achieve, what are their actions driving towards?

How far are they willing to go to get what they want, what sacrifices are they prepared to make?

What is precious to them, what do they love beyond everything else, what is at the core of their life that they will never endanger?

What are their prevailing life-attitudes, how do they pass judgement on things that crop up around them every day?

Some people work from questionnaires for each character: they use a form that has maybe a hundred questions on it that they answer for their characters. Stuff like what would they do if they came in to a huge sum of money, if they found out one of their closest friends had a terminal illness, if their lover cheated on them, that kind of thing.

Having that level of detail can be really useful.

The detail you go in to brings them to life in your mind, makes them more real and ultimately makes them easier to write with. The things you know about them may never come out in the piece you are writing, but they will shape the character’s actions, they will help you decide what the character would and should do.

Where does the character’s voice come from?

How do they speak? Do they speak in a natural way, with broken sentences, half-finished thoughts, expecting others to fill in bits, or are they very particular, choosing words carefully, using the language to demonstrate how well-informed they are?

Do they have favourite phrases, sayings, or words?

Dialogue is a tough one. Most people take a while to find their character’s voice, writing some pretty bad dialogue to start off with, then settling in to it as the piece unfolds. Then it’s down to the edit to fix the early stuff. That’s how I write, it takes a while for the character to settle in to their skin, to find their voice.

I go in to varying levels of detail depending on the character’s function in the story: the more central the character the more detail I get before I start writing.

How do you do it? How do you create your characters? How well do you get to know them before you start writing with them?