How to Flesh Out Flat Characters With Just 4 Questions


How do you create characters who are well-developed and realistic, not flat and unbelievable? How do you create characters your readers love and remember long after they finish your book?

There are tons of character development questionnaires and personality tests and character sketch templates out there. You can absolutely use those if you like—just do a Google search and tons of things will pop up.

Those questionnaires include all kinds of questions: everything from “What’s your character’s deepest fear?” to “What’s their hair color?” to “What toppings do they most hate on pizza?”

You can even find some even more imaginative questions, like, “If your character could have a conversation with any historical figure, who would they choose and what would they say?”

And that’s all interesting, and absolutely part of what makes us human, and if you find it helpful, go for it.

But you don’t need all those questions in order to create a richly-developed character. Truly, you don’t.

The Minimum Viable Character Development Questionnaire

In fact, you can develop a character with just four questions.

I call this the Minimum Viable Character Development Questionnaire.

(It’s not a very pithy title. There are more syllables in some of those words than there are questions on this list. I’m working on it. I’m open to suggestions.)

I created this questionnaire by asking myself, what’s the smallest number of questions we can ask to develop your character while still giving you enough to work with to make them feel truly real?

These questions will give you critical information you need in order to make your characters feel like real people in your story without getting you stuck in a debate about pineapple on pizza or not.

(Side note, I’m firmly pro. If that causes you to stop reading this blog, I’m sorry. It’s been a good run.)

More Than the Minimum

Now, there are some characters where you’re going to need more than minimum viable character development.

Specifically, your protagonist and antagonist will need to be developed a good bit more. They both drive the story—their beliefs and actions and wants and needs actually create the plot, so you’ll need to really understand their beliefs and actions and wants and needs and more.

You can start with the Minimum Viable Character Development Questionnaire, and then continue developing your protagonist and antagonist with more of my favorite character development questions.

I have a couple articles I recommend you check out for those:

Those articles even come with a character arc worksheet, which you can get by entering your email below:

When Minimum Viable Is the Perfect Amount

Your side characters, though? They need to be more than cardboard cutouts, but you also don’t need to know them as well as you know your siblings or best friend.

They’re important to the story—they add more complications to the plot and they help showcase the theme—but they’re not so central that you need to know everything about them.

So these four questions will give you just enough character development you need to get started, or to edit “flat” side characters into three-dimensional ones.

These questions will give you relevant information that will impact what your side characters do in the story without getting you stuck trying to figure out a hundred details about them that won’t ever matter in the story.

Ready for the questions? Let’s get right to them!

The 4 Minimum Viable Character Development Questions

I’m going to share the four questions with you, and as I do, I’m also going to show you a couple examples of the questions at work. I’ve picked two side characters to be our examples, and I’m going to answer the questions for each character.

The two characters I’ve chosen are Lydia from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Kristy from The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen.

You’ve probably heard of Pride and Prejudice before. It’s the story of Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy falling in love despite their differences in status, and Lydia is Elizabeth’s youngest sister.

If you’re not familiar with The Truth About Forever, it’s a YA novel published in 2004. The protagonist is Macy Queen, a high school senior who saw her dad die a year ago. Her grief has driven her to perfectionism: if she can just stay perfect and in control and keep everything in her life organized and predictable, she can protect herself from any future catastrophe.

Kristy is a friend Macy meets when she gets a job at a chaotic catering company, and Kristy soon becomes one of her best friends.

So let’s put Kristy and Lydia to the test with the Minimum Viable Character Development Questionnaire.

Here’s the first question:

1. What is this character’s backstory?

You don’t need to know every detail about a side character’s backstory. But it helps to know a little bit about it.

Backstory contextualizes everything that happens in the present. It helps to explain why characters make certain choices, or why they want and need the things they want and need, or why they hold certain beliefs about themselves or the world.

Maybe you’ll share a side character’s backstory with your readers in the text of the story. Maybe that side character will tell the protagonist about their backstory. Or maybe it will never come up, and your readers will never know.

Regardless of whether your readers know the backstory or not, you will be able to write your side characters with more nuance and verisimilitude when you have at least a cursory understanding of their backstory.

Let’s take a look at our example characters.

What’s Lydia’s backstory?

Lydia is the youngest of five sisters. In most ways, her backstory is actually the same as Elizabeth’s. We could talk about their social status, the entail that will give Mr. Collins possession of their home when Mr. Bennet dies, or Mrs. Bennet’s determination to marry them all off.

But here’s what I find most interesting about Lydia’s backstory: there are suggestions that when the first Bennet daughters were born, Mr. Bennet was a pretty active participant in their lives and upbringing. Jane and especially Elizabeth are close to their father, and are thoughtful, considerate, and educated.

Lydia, though, is the youngest of five daughters, and Mr. Bennet was always hoping for a son to be the answer to his financial problems. By the time Lydia was born, it seems that Mr. Bennet was a checked-out father, no longer actively directing his children towards education or accomplishments, but letting them do whatever they liked.

Lydia, then, is in the same financial straits as her sisters, but without the lifetime of care and support from her father.

What’s Kristy’s backstory?

Kristy is also a high schooler, although she goes to a different school than Macy, so they’ve never met until this summer. She lives in a trailer with her grandmother, Stella, and teenage sister, Monica.

When Kristy was twelve, her mother, an alcoholic, crashed into a tree while driving Kristy to school. Monica was sick with chicken pox, so she wasn’t in the car, but Kristy had to be cut out of the car and was hospitalized with life-threatening injuries.

She recovered fully, though she has a number of scars, including a couple scars on her face. Some time after the accident, Kristy’s mom “took off to find herself,” and Kristy and Monica moved in with Stella. Since then, Kristy has had several worthless boyfriends, and she and Monica work for a catering company, which is how they meet Macy.

So that’s our first question: what is this character’s backstory?

Now for the second question:

2. What are a few aspects of their personality?

Your characters’ personality traits are a lot more relevant to your story than their favorite flavor of pizza.

The most important element of characterization is what your characters do—not what they look like or what they like and dislike, but what they do. That’s why we come to story: to see characters doing things.

And personality traits are major clues that can help guide you as you figure out what your characters are going to do in your story.

So for this question, I recommend that you list a handful of adjectives or short descriptors of your character’s personality.

Here’s what that looks like for our example characters:

What’s Lydia’s personality?

Lydia is gregarious, bold, fun-loving, flirty, impetuous. Those are perhaps the more flattering adjectives I can find for her.

Jane Austen also describes her as self-willed, careless, ignorant, idle and vain. And Elizabeth Bennet describes her character as marked with “wild volatility, the assurance and disdain of all restraint.”

What’s Kristy’s personality?

Kristy is vibrant, outgoing, friendly, confident, loud, cheerful, encouraging, open to risks and adventure. She’s faced down her own mortality, but she hasn’t emerged from that afraid of the world. Rather, she considers every moment precious and worth making the most of.

So there we have a few personality traits. Now we’re ready for question three:

3. How do they make decisions?

This question is in some ways a repeat of question two, just with slightly more nuance. Like I said before, the most important part of characterization is what your characters do.

More specifically, it’s what your characters decide—the choices they make and the actions they take.

So now that you have a sense of your character’s personality in general, and some elements of backstory that inform and contextualize that, hone in on how they make decisions.

What are some factors they consider? What’s their decision-making process?

Let’s take a look at our examples.

How does Lydia make decisions?

Lydia makes decisions based on what will be the most fun and exciting for her at any given moment.

She is not hampered by the rules of society or any need for decorum or propriety. She doesn’t have much concern for how her actions will impact other people, or for the long-term consequences of anything she does. She doesn’t have a well-developed sense of risk to herself and others, nor a sense of shame or embarrassment.

She’s not a particularly discerning character; she’s just following the whims of her own feelings and what will be most fun for her.

How does Kristy make decisions?

Kristy is not going to let life pass her by. She’s here to seize the day.

She pays attention to those around her to see what they need, and she responds with kindness. She makes bold and brave choices—not necessarily physically risky, but certainly putting herself out there in terms of relationships. She’s not afraid or bogged down by failure, but always up to try again and make the most of every day.

So now we have some important clues about how our characters make decisions. We’re ready for the fourth and final question in the Minimum Viable Character Development Questionnaire:

4. What do they want? What’s their goal?

All right, so that might sound like two questions. Really, though, it’s the same question, just framed two different ways so you can answer the version that resonates with you.

I love this quote from Kurt Vonnegut:

“Make your characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”

You probably have an idea about what your protagonist wants. (If you don’t, definitely go check out How to Identify Your Protagonist’s Want and Need (And Why Those Matter to Your Plot).)

Your side characters should want things, too.

Everybody wants something. Everybody is trying to get something they don’t have or keep having something they do have.

And when one character’s wants don’t align with another character’s wants, boom, you’ve got conflict.

Now, you don’t have to reorient your entire story around following a side character to see whether they get what they want. We’re coming to the story to follow the protagonist that closely, not the side characters.

But your side characters still need wants because wants give them something to do.

Imagine you have a group of students in a classroom. The protagonist wants to get an A on the test. They’re paying attention to the teacher, focused, asking questions, raising their hand, taking careful notes.

There are a dozen other students in the room. What if none of those students have goals of their own? Now you have a room where one student is paying close attention to the teacher, and all the other students might as well be cardboard cutouts that someone propped behind each desk.

But what if one of the other students in class wants to leave early?

What if another student wants to beat the protagonist on the test?

What if another student wants to tune out the teacher and daydream?

What if another student wants to go to the bathroom?

What if another student wants to flirt with the student next to them?

What if the teacher’s cat is sick, and the teacher just wants class to end so they can get home and check on their cat?

Any one of those students could pursue their want in a way that would cause conflict in the scene. Any one of those students could pursue their want in a way that would make them feel more alive, real, and interesting than a cardboard cutout.

We don’t need to know what every single one of the dozen students in this classroom wants within this one scene. In most stories, that’s probably too much information for the reader.

But there might be one or two or three side characters in this scene whose wants are relevant. Their wants are directly related to the conflict you want to create for your protagonist in this scene. And because those characters have wants, they have something to do.

Let’s take a look at our example characters.

What does Lydia Bennet want?

Honestly, if we really dig, I think Lydia wants attention.

It’s very clear she wants to have fun—she’s always pestering people to host balls and walking to Merryton for gossip and buying new bonnets to decorate and flirting with officers. She likes being the center of attention, the girl the officers flirt with, the one who’s invited to Brighton to keep partying with her friends.

When she marries Wickham, she marries for the fun of it, and she delights in showing off her ring and in taking her place above her eldest sister in the family lineup.

So throughout the story, we see her pursuing fun—and specifically, the kind of fun that involves her being the center of attention.

What does Kristy want?

Kristy wants a boyfriend. Not just any boyfriend, but a nice boyfriend, one of the good ones. A boyfriend who cares about her, who remembers how to spell her name and doesn’t leave her for dead out in the middle of nowhere.

Throughout the story, we see her going to parties, talking to boys, and evaluating prospects, looking for someone who could truly be a good boyfriend.

The Complete Minimum Viable Questionnaire

And those are our four questions! Here they are again:

  1. What is the character’s backstory?
  2. What are a few aspects of their personality?
  3. How do they make decisions?
  4. What do they want? What’s their goal?

And here’s what they look like when we put them all together into a snapshot of a character:

Lydia Bennet is the youngest of five daughters, and she’s received very little parental guidance her whole life. She’s fun-loving and flirty, ignorant and vain. Her decisions are self-centered and shortsighted, and she doesn’t consider the consequences they’ll have for herself or others. And she’s always seeking fun and attention.

Kristy is a high schooler who nearly died at age twelve when her mother wrecked their car. She’s vibrant, outgoing, confident, and friendly. She chooses to seize the day and live life to the fullest, and she’s willing to take risks, especially in relationships, to make that happen. She’s seeking a good boyfriend, someone who cares about her and treats her well.

From Cardboard Cutouts to 3D People

Do you see how with just four questions, we’ve put together invaluable information about two side characters?

With that information, you can put Lydia or Kristy in any scene and imagine things they might say or do.

You can put them in a scene with another side character or two, and they’ll stand out as unique and different, their own person, not a flat cardboard cutout identical to every other background character.

You can put them in a scene with the protagonist, and they’ll further the protagonist’s goal or create conflict that hinders them—because both Kristy and Lydia are pursuing goals of their own, in their own way, for their own reasons.

In other words, they’re like real people.

With this Minimum Viable Character Development Questionnaire, you’ve got enough material to turn flat characters into 3D people.

And all in only four questions—questions that don’t require you to take a controversial stand about pineapple on pizza!

If you have any flat side characters floating around in your story, fading into the background because they’re indistinguishable from one another, I invite you to ask these four questions of each of them.

If you’d like even more characterization exercises, definitely check out these articles:

And get the Character Arc Worksheet here:

Then, celebrate your stellar character development with a good, good slice of Hawaiian pizza.

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