Posted On February 27, 2012 by Print This Post

Character Questions: How To Dig Deep by Lynne Marshall

Wouldn’t it be nice if we woke up one morning knowing everything there is to know about our characters? Actually, it would be more than nice. In my case, it would be a miracle! I’ve often thought getting to know characters is like getting to know a new friend. It takes time and plenty of conversation.

Author Lynne Marshall is here with some tips on how we can deepen our characters.

Take it away, Lynne!

Strangers in the Night

Are you having trouble getting to know your characters?  Are they reaching out to you but somehow not making contact?  Beginning a book is always a time of discovery, and sometimes our characters resist our delving.  So how do we writers break down the barrier?

A couple of summers ago, I had the good fortune of extra time and enrolled in a UCLA extension writing workshop: Deepening the Characters You Create.  The instructor used personalized questions to help each participant create realistic characters with distinct histories, points of view, and value systems. The goal of the class was that we would use this gathered information to weave into our current or future story. 

I had a vague idea about three siblings, two sisters and a brother, the Grady family.  I planned to write a book for each one, and the workshop proved to be the perfect way to get to know them.

Each week we received our particular questions, which were based on the information we gave our instructor via a brief synopsis of our stories. We were instructed to answer the question in first person, as if we were the protagonist. The instructor told us to allow at least thirty minutes for the character to free flow through the answer.

I planned to write the first book about Anne, the eldest sister, as her parents’ sudden trauma and subsequent special needs forces her back home, a place she’d run away from twelve years ago. My goal in the series was for each sibling to deal with their place in the family and their own private brokenness. That meant I needed to explore that brokenness.

Professor Doctor’s questions proved to be the perfect path to reach my elusive heroine, Anne, and in the process, I also grew to know Lucas, the middle sibling, and Lark, the youngest Grady.

A sample of questions that might be helpful with your characters.

  • What is your earliest memory of injustice?  Go dark.
  • Can you let go of grudges and resentments? Find the shame of what the character felt.
  • How did your siblings show their love growing up?
  • What was the glue that held your family together?
  • Did either sibling have something you desperately wanted?
  • How do you cope when the pain is overbearing? (tell the story)
  • Re: romantic relationships – are you competing instead of nurturing?
  • How do you sabotage relationships?
  • What wounds have you kept hidden, and what wounds are yet to heal?
  • What gifts do you have to offer another?
  • What common miracles do you forget to notice?
  • What does it mean to be free?
  • Where do you find comfort to avoid feeling pain?
  • What makes you feel alive?
  • What does contentment look like?
  • When did your heart move from cold to fire?
  • How has compassion and empathy for others affected your life?
  • When did a crack of light creep into the darkness?
  • What have you chased with urgency, passion and veracity?
  • What do you miss that can’t be returned?
  • What is worth fighting for?
  • What do you want right now that you’re not willing to wait for?
  • What questions must you have answers to?

What I Learned

By answering questions like these in first person, I was able to bring my characters from distant billowing silhouettes into full focus. Since my trilogy revolves around three siblings, their shared childhood played a huge part in each of their characters, and by examining their past, the future became clearer. I learned that Anne was the rock of the siblings, solid, practical, dependable, and blunt to a fault. Eventually she’d discover that good things come to those who wait. Always mistaken as a slacker, Lucas was cautious, inward, and loyal, but in his story as he battled post traumatic stress disorder he’d learn that out of friendship blooms the truest love. Ethereal, fragile Lark would prove herself to be capable and strong after her teenage struggle with anorexia, and as she learned and embraced her destiny, contrary to her hopes and dreams, all roads would lead back home.  In the end, that is where she and her baby were meant to be.

This one particular insight by the professor blew my mind:  “There is always one moment in childhood where the door opens and lets in the future.”

RU Crew, can you define that moment for your characters? Leave a comment for a chance to win either a medical romance backlist book from Lynne or an ebook of One for the Road.

Join us tomorrow when Alicia Rasley shares her top ten pacing tips.

Bio: Lynne Marshall writes contemporary and Medical Romance for Harlequin and The Wild Rose Press.  The first book in the Grady family trilogy, Courting His Favorite Nurse, is a March 2012 Harlequin Special Edition.  Also coming in March in e-book only is, An Indiscretion, a contemporary romance with strong medical elements, from The Wild Rose Press.

You can connect with Lynne Marshall on the Web:

Website                Facebook             RomanceWiki         Author Page

COURTING HIS FAVORITE NURSE Harlequin Special Edition, March 2012 #2178, US


Anne Grady knew better than anyone that love was complicated. When she’d left her hometown, she thought she was leaving her past heartbreak behind for good, as well. But practically the moment she returned to care for her injured parents, she stumbled headlong into their confidant—her first love, Jack Lightfoot.


Jack had been unable to deny his feelings for Annie when he was a teenager dating her best friend, and he certainly couldn’t muffle the spark twisting between them now—even if memories of the past kept threatening to push them apart. This time Jack wasn’t going to let history repeat itself—he was going to show Annie that the two of them were meant to be much more than best friends!


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64 Responses to “Character Questions: How To Dig Deep by Lynne Marshall”

  1. I know I have a long way to go before I could have a moment like that for my characters. Maybe I have to get more in tune with them.

    I’m learning from you through your blog tour Lynne. Thank you. I’ll have to bookmark this post!

    Posted by Maria from 'gaelikaa's diary' | February 27, 2012, 5:44 am
    • Hi Maria!
      I am so happy to know that you are learning from my blogs. This character question process brought to light inctricacies between the characters (the siblings and their parents) and I believe helped sell the first book.

      I hope you’ll give your characters a whirl with this free-flowing style of letting them answer a question in first person.

      I used many of those writing exercises when scenes came up in the books. It really did help me know how my characters would react to situations.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | February 27, 2012, 9:01 am
  2. Hi Lynne,

    These are some of the best questions I’ve seen for character development. Thank you!

    It certainly seems that characters’ ‘wounds’ and other defining events emanate from childhood – adolescence in particular – but I’ve never thought of it as “…. one moment in childhood where the door opens and lets in the future.”


    Do you typically begin with a story idea then use questions to define characters who’d ‘fit’, for want of a better word?


    Posted by Cia | February 27, 2012, 6:14 am
    • PS. The hero of my wip has that moment, my heroine, not so much. Guess who’s better drawn 🙂


      Posted by Cia | February 27, 2012, 6:20 am
      • Hi Cia!
        I’m usually a book by book person, and this was the first time I decided to write a trilogy involving a family. I had to write the synopsis for all three characters plus a reason to bring them all home.
        Creating a family is a huge undertaking, since each person has “baggage” and I didn’t want it to be trite or pat. All siblings have disappointments in life – that’s just the way life is – but forcing myself to explore those childhood disappointments and the family dynamics brought added dimension to the characters and, hopefully, the books. (Have now sold Lucas’ story and fingers crossed on Larks).

        Loved your PS! So go back and give your heroine a glimpse of her future from her little girl self and enjoy the process!

        Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

        Posted by Lynne Marshall | February 27, 2012, 9:12 am
  3. Hi Lynne,

    What great quetions. I go back in my family history. My grandmother faced hardships so her life is a good one to mine.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | February 27, 2012, 6:36 am
  4. Hi Lynne!
    Great post! Very helpful as I am delving into a new book and having a bit of trouble finding my way. I think I’ll try your questions with first person responses. This may be just what I need!


    Posted by Wendy S. Marcus | February 27, 2012, 7:24 am
    • Hi Wendy!
      Oh, I hope you find this process helpful. One of the things we tend to do when starting new books, is rush into it. Sometimes giving ourselves a week or two to let those characters come into focus, can make writing the book a heck of a lot easier!

      Good luck!

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | February 27, 2012, 9:14 am
  5. Hi Lynne, I love these character questions! So much more insightful than “favorite color”. 🙂

    One problem I’ve always had with these type of questions is from what point in the story to answer them. Obviously if you’re using them to learn about the character, all of the answers should come from their experience prior to page one. But a lot of this is the sort of thing I like to explore AFTER pg one.

    For example, “how do you sabatoge relationships” is something I’d like a character to figure out because of their relationship with the other character and will happen most likely toward the end of the book. How do you handle this?

    Posted by Kat Cantrell | February 27, 2012, 7:55 am
    • Hi Kat!

      I so agree, I don’t even know what my favorite color is! LOL – it changes everytime I see a new and prettier shade of something.

      If a person/character sabatoges relationships – it isn’t because it just started happening with this one particular relationship. The character has probably been doing it all her life. The beauty of having that blow out scene (our relationship will never survive – there’s no way we’ll ever get together) followed by the epiphany scene is the character not only owns up to his/her old habits, but is finally willing to break them.
      Does that make any sense?

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | February 27, 2012, 9:19 am
  6. These are great questions, Lynne – this is going to help a lot!

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | February 27, 2012, 7:58 am
    • Hi Becke!
      It is so great to be here today. Thanks so much for inviting me.

      Exploring family dynamics through character questions is a great way to discover who your characters are at their core. It also helps identify when a reaction doesn’t ring true or is forced for the author’s purposes instead of the characters’.

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | February 27, 2012, 9:21 am
  7. Lynne –

    Thanks so much for a fabulous post. The idea of a character’s “wound” came to me from Michael Hauge, and it’s definitely a powerful one.

    One question I have for you: do you feel every character must have a dark wound or backstory in order to have powerful motivation?

    Thanks so much!

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | February 27, 2012, 8:26 am
    • Hi Kelsey –
      I don’t know about you, but I don’t know one single person who hasn’t had to overcome a “wound” in life. We’ve all been hurt, that’s just the way life is. However, it all depends on the story and the character. What is one person’s wound is another persons bump in the road. Dark wounds don’t fit in light books, but if you’re writing a dark and brooding hero then, yes, he needs powerful motivation. Otherwise he’ll come off like a spoiled brat whiner. LOL.

      Go for it!

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | February 27, 2012, 9:25 am
  8. Hi Lynne. Welcome to RU. I love this list of questions. I have a character interview I do for each character and will be adding your list to it. I don’t think I could write a book without that interview. I learn so much about the characters from it.

    Thanks for hanging out with us today!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | February 27, 2012, 8:53 am
    • Hi Adrienne –

      Thank you so much for having me today. I agree! After taking this class, I am a believer in character questions.

      I just wish I had the luxury of time with each and every book, that I did when I wrote this trilogy proposal.

      I get very tired of the same pat excuses for holding people back in relationships – he got his heart broken (ripped out) by a woman so he’ll never love again. If we find out the first woman to rip out his heart was his mother, well, then, that’s another story all together.

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | February 27, 2012, 9:27 am
  9. Wow, great list of questions. I’m always so impatient to start a new project that I fail to delve this deeply into a character. I focus on their “points of pain”…things in the past that become their flash points now, but I never go this deeply. Hmmm…

    Posted by Vonnie Davis | February 27, 2012, 9:29 am
    • Hi Vonnie –
      I don’t usually go this deep either, but undertaking an entire family of characters required my delving deeper. It sure helps when writing connected books.

      The luxury of time is a key issue. I never want to find myself in a position of churning out books.

      You don’t have to ask every character every question – I was giving samples. But asking the right questions and spending a little extra time in the character’s head might help for a truly believable character/story, and may make the difference between reading about the character and really caring about them as a reader.

      thanks for reading and commenting. 🙂

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | February 27, 2012, 9:43 am
  10. Wonderful questions, Lynne, because they make for insightful answers. I agree, I think there are surface wounds that can appear to be the cause of a persons inability to love or trust, but if you dig deep enough you’ll find the deep and well-hidden reason.

    Looking forward to the book. : )

    Posted by robena grant | February 27, 2012, 9:40 am
  11. Hi Robena!
    Great and insightful point you’ve made. Can you imagine how interesting it would when the character realizes that, too?

    I hope you enjoy Courting His Favorite Nurse.

    Thanks for commenting.

    Posted by Lynne Marshall | February 27, 2012, 9:45 am
  12. Morning Lynne!

    I definitely need a list like this. =) My question – when you said the instructor said allow 30 min. Is that per question? Or 30 min to allow yourself to get into character?

    Thanks for posting today!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | February 27, 2012, 10:07 am
    • Hi Carrie –
      The instructor sent us home with one question a week pertaining to the topic we were covering (for instance – Understanding the nuclear family) and the character we focused on. The questions were totally individual, and we’d all come back the next week to read our answers aloud – but were only allowed to read for five minutes – so the 30 mins was to get the answer flowing and to form an enlightening response. I always discovered new things answering these questions. In fact, I discovered that the youngest sister was an anorexic doing my homework one week, and I broke down and cried when I wrote the scene. A snippet of that scene (on how Anne discovers her sister’s problem) is in Courting His Favorite Nurse. 🙂

      It was a fantastic process, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat – but the luxury of time is always a sticky issue! Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had 8 weeks to dig deep into our characters before we started the book!

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | February 27, 2012, 10:38 am
  13. Thank you so much for these questions. They will not all apply to my heroine, as she is an only child. And the book is really about the answers to some of these questions, but some of the others really need to be answered. I like my character, and she grow in this book, but she is a little shallow. I think this exercise can add depth to her. Some of the other questions I think will REALLY help me flesh out the hero. I need more help with him. Very cool!

    Posted by Mystic Wyngarden | February 27, 2012, 10:59 am
    • Hi Mystic!
      I am so glad some of these questions resonate with you for your characters.

      As I mentioned, the prof had literally thousands of questions and she chose only those that applied to the characters in question. I got so much out of that class.

      Thanks for reading commenting today.

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | February 27, 2012, 11:02 am
  14. Awesome list of questions. I can see where that would really come in handy when you’re dealing with a family, especially. Thanks, Lynne, for the great tips!

    Posted by Christine Ashworth | February 27, 2012, 11:47 am
    • Hi Chrsitine – thanks for reading and commenting. Knowing I was going to write a family in three books gave me the incentive to dig deeper than usual. After all, I would be using the gathered insight over three books, so you’re right. Any serial books – like your Demon Soul series, would benefit from asking some of these questions. Or making up your own!

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | February 27, 2012, 1:09 pm
  15. Hi Lynne,

    Welcome to RU! Like everyone else, I love your list. Have you ever had to veer off your answers in order to stay true to the story?

    Thanks, Tracey

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | February 27, 2012, 12:12 pm
    • Great question, Tracey. I’ve only employed this technique with this trilogy, but yes, I did have to veer off from some of the answers in a different direction. Mainly, because of editorial input. I had to drop the current “boyfriend” left behind in Portland for Anne. He was a big part of some of my answers to those questions, but it didn’t fit with the line and I dropped him except for a funny little mention that Anne’s mother took a look at a picture of the guy and said he looked like Jack (the hero of this book) ten years ago. Anne had been blind to that fact until her mother poins it out.

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | February 27, 2012, 1:12 pm
  16. Thanks for sharing, Lynne! I’ve got a rather complicated character running around in my head right now,and some of these questions might just help me sort him out a bit.

    Posted by Roz Lee | February 27, 2012, 12:31 pm
  17. Wow — those were some really specific questions. It does makes you think and get into your character’s heads. Do you come up with different questions, for different books, or do you use the same questions somewaht?

    Posted by Charlene Sands | February 27, 2012, 12:42 pm
    • Hi Charlene!
      So glad to see you here. Those questions were given to me by the prof at UCLA. I got wise and started jotting down as many of the questions as I could that she gave to other students for their stories, too. I gave a sampling here of what I gathered. In actuality, I only rec’d 8 questions since it was an 8 wk course. I will use what can apply to future books, too. Many are general, but others are specific to situations.

      I think one or two targeted to the plot questions would be enough to uncover significant backstory, don’t you?

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | February 27, 2012, 1:20 pm
  18. Great post. 🙂
    I do interviews with my characters. Lock them into a room and ask questions. Hard ones. Easy ones. Awkward ones. Taboo ones. (I have a list of some of them on my blog)
    And answer in first person, note down reactions etc.
    I rarely use all of it, but I know that character inside out. I know what they carry in their pocket, I know what they eat for breakfast. I know where they come from, how they grew up, who their best friend was in 3rd grade.
    You are right it’s like getting to know a friend. 🙂

    Posted by Silke Juppenlatz | February 27, 2012, 12:51 pm
  19. Wow, those are great questions and so helpful right now as I start thinking about book 2 and even while I am revising book 1. Great post.

    Posted by Maria Powers | February 27, 2012, 1:04 pm
  20. Hi Lynne! These questions are definitely some of the best I’ve seen. Thank you for sharing them! My mind is spinning now (in a good way) as I prepare to do some revising.

    Congrats on your latest release! I can’t wait to read it. 🙂

    Posted by Robin Bielman | February 27, 2012, 1:25 pm
    • Hi Robin,
      I’m so glad your head is spinning! LOL In a good way. Revising is a great time to dig deeper with the characters. I hope this blog helps you hone in on what could use some ramping up. 🙂

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I can’t wait for you to read my book, either. ha ha

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | February 27, 2012, 1:47 pm
  21. I used to do those questionnaires, but I found my answers forced as though I had to find an answer. Now I let my character talk to me while I’m making notes about the story.

    But I do have to write down the names I use and the personal characters…eye color, hair color, etc. I can never remember

    Posted by Cynthia D'Alba (aka ArkansasCyndi) | February 27, 2012, 1:28 pm
    • Cynthia – character questionnaires have never ever appealed to me. These type of go to the gut questions, however, make a lot more sense to me since category romance requires a great deal of relationship digging. If I’m going to have to put my characters through hell, I may as well have some super backstory to keep feeding the fire down there. LOL

      Oh, yeah – the little important things like hair and eye color trip me up often enough too. I think in the future I’ll write a guy or gal with one eye green and one blue or brown so I can get away with it! 🙂

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | February 27, 2012, 1:50 pm
  22. Lynne,

    I love these questions! I’m definitely adding these to my list! Thanks for sharing! Love CHFN, by the way! I’m lucky to have the inside track on this book! You wrote a terrific story! Congrats!

    Posted by Dee J. | February 27, 2012, 2:06 pm
  23. Thank you, Lynne, for a very informative post. I love the sample questions – very unique from others I’ve seen. Can’t wait to grill my characters!

    Posted by Jenna Rutland | February 27, 2012, 2:29 pm
  24. I’ve never been able to get much from character questionairres, but having character-specific questions to ask(especially from an outside eye)… I think I need some of that! Even without, those are great questions. Thank you for sharing (always love writing tips).


    Posted by AmalieB | February 27, 2012, 4:00 pm
    • Hi Amalie B!
      Thanks so much for reading the blog. Yes, about those character specific questions!

      I think Prof. Doctor happens to be a book doctor, too, so she knows how to zero in on the meat of the matter.

      I am so happy to meet a Medical Romance fan! We are the biggest little secret at Harlequin. 🙂

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | February 27, 2012, 5:01 pm
  25. Wow, I can really see where this process could help when you’re writing a series.

    Thanks so much for the insight, Lynne!


    Posted by Leigh Court | February 27, 2012, 4:35 pm
  26. Lynne,
    Do your characters ever morph and change? If so, do you go back to the begining and make them fit or do you strong-arm the middle where they are changing?

    Posted by Connie | February 27, 2012, 5:37 pm
    • Hi Connie – characters are supposed to change in the book, right? However, if I lay down a strong conflict grid, gmc etc, I can keep them on track when they try to go squirley on me!

      I’ve been told that if problems arise in the middle (that saggy middle bit) it is because there isn’t a strong enough lock on the conflict. I firmly belief that solid conflict will carry your character through the whole story.

      But characters need to and should change for a satisfying growth arc.

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | February 27, 2012, 5:46 pm
  27. Hi Lynne!

    You’ve given us a terrific list on developing a three-dimensional character. A character’s emotional traits are revealed as the story unfolds, but I’m always asking myself how much I need to reveal to drive the message home to the reader. Sometimes slipping in a snippet of backstory necessary for the scene isn’t enough.
    What do you think of backflashes?

    Thanks for being with us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | February 27, 2012, 5:50 pm
    • Hi Jennifer – it was my pleasure to be here today.

      I had to be very careful with backflashes in this book, but I did use them. I have also used backflashes in other reunion stories. It is almost necessary, as not everything can come out in present day conversation.

      So I am fine with backflashes – but a little goes a long way. I know there are varied and strong views on whether or not to use backflashes, but whenever someone says NEVER do this or that, I think – really?

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | February 27, 2012, 6:01 pm
      • I use backflshes when I can’t figure out another way to present something the character keeps to themselves. An experience that’s traumatic or life changing. This applies more to my male characters because men are less likely to share deeply emotional experiences with others.

        The so-called rules…the h/h must meet in the first chapter, no prologues…always raise my hackles. Thank you!

        Posted by Jennifer Tanner | February 27, 2012, 6:32 pm
        • Jennifer said: “I use backflshes when I can’t figure out another way to present something the character keeps to themselves. An experience that’s traumatic or life changing. This applies more to my male characters because men are less likely to share deeply emotional experiences with others.”

          Lynne says: This makes perfect sense to me! As long as it isn’t overdone, why not?

          Posted by Lynne Marshall | February 27, 2012, 6:42 pm
  28. Hi Lynne,
    As I’m starting a new project, these questions are perfect for me. Thanks so much for sharing them with us.

    Posted by Janie Emaus | February 27, 2012, 10:01 pm
  29. This couldn’t have come at a better time, Lynne! Thanks for the questions and tips. Can I use these?

    Posted by Calisa Rhose | February 27, 2012, 10:06 pm
  30. Thank you for sharing your experience and insights. Hope this question isn’t too late.
    What are your thoughts on 1st Chapter starting as trauma point in heroine’s childhood where turmoil was experienced…giving reader insight in character fear/psych wound? Does this take the writing from romance to YA then back again? I’ve rewritten and feels youth driven even though reader experiences trauma right from the start. Again, thank you Lynne and I’m passing your post on.

    Posted by Susan Taylor | March 7, 2012, 8:20 am
  31. Hi Susan!
    I only just saw this comment today, so sorry for the delay. 🙂

    I think, from what you’re describing, what you have is a prologue event. Make it short, to the point, getting the point across, but don’t linger.

    Some pooh pooh prologues. I say, whatever you need to tell your story, do it. Some editor down the line will decide if the prologue works or not.

    I hope that helps?

    all the best,

    Posted by Lynne Marshall | March 9, 2012, 10:23 am

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