Tuesday, May 23, 2017

On Character Minutiae and Seemingly Irrelevant Details

By Bonnie Randall 

Part of the How They Do It Series (Monthly Contributor)

This meme floated over my Facebook feed the other day, and struck me for how true it was. So much of what’s incidental about people is revealed through their over-arching actions and dialogue—and vice-versa. I have written before on how knowing the minutiae of a character can lend to richer development of that person and their interactions within our stories, but I am also a firm believer that when we are stuck with where to go next in plot, we’re wise to go back to assessing the person our story is about, see what we’ve missed about their personality—because those pieces could well provide the direction we next need to go. After all, values, preferences, habits and quirks have far more influence than we think—even if they are not always visible to the naked eye.

Now, there are myriad ways to go about collecting the obscure data we are looking for in our characters; social media alone has umpteen surveys that fly amid our friend lists every day. Or, if you’re looking to really mine deep for (subconscious) gold, try a technique that Cricket Freeman, literary agent with The August Agency, shared at Surrey International Writer’s Convention years ago:

1. Go to bed, but leave your laptop cued up to a blank doc on the screen

2. Set your alarm for between 3 and 4 in the morning

3. Get up when the alarm buzzes and go to that blank doc, start to write every question and answer you can think of for your character. Irrelevant to profound, ask everything.

4. When you’re finished, hit ‘save’ and go back to bed.

5. Read it through the next day after you’ve slept some more and be amazed at what you came up with in your half-wakened, groggy state.

Or, if you are protective over your sleep (and the older I get the more junkyard dog-esque I become), how about you try some of the following, which I’ve split into categories with plenty of room to add more to? (Oh, and remember to ask your character “Why?” after every answer he or she provides for additional illumination)


  • Spiritual, agnostic, or atheist? If spiritual, what faith (if any) is subscribed to?
  • Do they donate to charity? What charity(ies) are their favorites?
  • Believe in the death penalty?
  • Believe in ‘Stand Your Ground’?
  • How about gun control?
  • Abortion?
  • Healthcare? Yes or no? Why?
  • How about costs covered for birth control? Viagra? Methadone?
  • Political leanings—right wing, left wing, or does it depend on the issue?
  • Gay marriage? Yes, no, or indifferent?


  • Tropical, mountains, desert or prairie?
  • Sweet or savory?
  • Coffee, tea, or hot chocolate?
  • Baths or showers?
  • Car, truck, SUV, or public transportation?
  • Winter, summer, spring, or fall?
  • Sunshine or rain? Thoughts on thunderstorms? What about blizzards?
  • Cats or dogs? Do they own a pet?

The Ordinary Every Day

  • Do they speak a second language? What is it and where did they learn it?
  • Do they read? Watch TV? What are their favorite genres or programs?
  • Tidy or messy? Ah…but what about in their vehicle?
  • What’s in their fridge?
  • What’s in their closet? Clotheshorse or a few favorite outfits?
  • Ratty underwear or fancy pants?
  • Incidentally, about those clothes: do they reveal a favorite color? What is it?
  • Do they pack a lunch every day for work or do they go out to eat?
  • Fitness freak or couch potato? If yes to fitness—what do they do to work out?

The Momentous

  • Sustained a broken bone or major injury? How old were they? What happened?
  • Endured a grave illness? Again how old / what sickness did they have?
  • Do they have a chronic condition?
  • Been in a car accident?
  • Ridden in an ambulance?
  • Watched someone be born?
  • Watched someone die?


  • Believe in the supernatural? Some of it or all of it? Ie: ghosts, aliens, Big Foot, demons, angels, hexes, ‘bad medicine’, voodoo…?
  • Rituals? Do they pray or meditate?
  • Have a lucky charm?

Dirty Little Secrets

  • Have they ever tried dope? What kind of dope? Weed? Coke? Xanax? Just smokes? Just booze? Why and when?
  • Have they watched porn? Do they watch porn? Have they ever made any homemade porn or sent racy pics? Again—when and with/to whom?
  • Have they had a same-sex encounter? Have they considered it? If your character is gay, have they had a hetero encounter? Have they considered it?
  • Have they ever been a cutter? Have they ever considered suicide? How seriously—just thoughts, or a bona-fide plan?
  • Are they or have they ever been a thief? What did they steal? Why?
  • Have they ever cheated on or with someone or something? Who? When? Why?
  • Have they ever intentionally hurt someone? Killed someone? Or considered it? Who and why?

Have good questions to add to the categories? Have additional categories that were not represented? Please share them in comments—and, for fun, share any answers your characters gave you to any of the above which surprised or disturbed you!

Looking forward to seeing what you share!


Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.

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About No Vacancy

There’s always room…

When therapist Lucas Stephen’s sister returns from a legendary Los Angeles hotel, she’s a shell of the artist she once was. Nearly catatonic, deteriorating rapidly, Michelle alarms Lucas by painting the same old-style straight razor over and over.

Heartbroken and frightened, Lucas resolves to find out what happened to her. With his beautiful—and psychic—colleague Della, Lucas travels to L.A., booking a room in the hotel Michelle stayed at.

They barely cross the threshold when Della senses evil. She sees bodies falling out of the sky. Broken dreams. Imprisoned nightmares. She begs Lucas to leave, but the hotel makes both time and truth shift, and when Lucas looks into the mirror in his sister’s room, he sees the straight razor—and is drawn to the bright, scarlet stain of fresh blood…


  1. I do not think I will try getting up in the middle of the night to do this exercise but, nevertheless, it is an excellent one. I know that my characters are a little flat. This exercise is bound to put some life into them.

  2. I finally caught up with my emails today. I love this post, even though developing characters comes easily to me. Unfortunately, my writing time is limited and often broken up by family demands and work. *sigh* I think this exercise is a great way to regain momentum and battle my occasional insomnia.