Character development is a difficulty that most writers face, if not all. It is a flaw readers look out for, and the fear of creating a lamented ‘Mary Sue’ can make a writer’s struggle significantly worse.
Personally, I find it a particular weakness in my own writing. Plot and action seem to come naturally to me, whereas the creation of realistic, engaging characters is something at which I have to continually work. For my writing partner, S.E. Berrow, the exact opposite problem is true: characters appear almost fully formed in her head, but developing a compelling plot is not as easy. I like to think this is why we work well as writing partners; we are the Yin and Yang of common author struggles. We share our tricks of the trade, offer advice, and challenge each other to do better.
One such trick I find useful when developing characters is a theatre practice called ‘Hot Seating’. In the theatre, this device is used to ‘get inside the head’ of the character you’ll be portraying: you sit in the centre of your company, and they fire quick questions at you that you must answer as your character, as quickly as possible. This allows an ‘instinctive’ feel for the character to bloom. For obvious reasons, this practice is helpful when getting to know new characters in writing.
Why Hot Seat?
There are a plethora of character development quizzes on the Internet that are more convenient to use, especially for the lone writer. The downside is that most ask the same kind of thing: height, build, age, hair colour, greatest weakness greatest strength. Although sometimes incredibly helpful as a starting point, these quizzes tend to be superficial, which I can’t help but think results in superficial characters. I like to think of them as a job interview: you know the standard questions you’ll be asked and you know what to say to get the result you want. At the end of the interview, your future boss (or reader) has the best impression of you, but hasn’t yet seen how you perform, or what you’re like under pressure.
If character quizzes are job interviews, Hot Seating is an FBI interrogation (or, if your partner is nicer than mine, a glass of wine and a drunken confession to your best friend on a Friday night after you’ve been dumped). The character you display is raw and real, and you might find out things that surprise you. Hot Seating doesn’t give you time to think through your answers. It’s instinctive, it’s real: you either know this character already or by the end of it, you will.
How to Hot Seat
The one downside to Hot Seating is that it requires two or more people in order to be effective. I’m fortunate to have a writing partner but I’m aware this is not true of many writers. The good thing about Hot Seating is that your partner does not need to be a fellow writer. Grab a willing friend or family member, or even an Internet buddy (although I would advise Instant Messaging/Skype instead of email for best results) and give it a try.
Step 1: Secure your partner.
Step 2: Get into your character’s frame of mind.
Step 3: Set a 2 minute timer.
Step 4: Your partner should ideally have 20-30 questions prepared. Obviously, if there is more than one person asking questions, these should be split between them. The idea is to have enough questions that you have little to no time to think of answers. You should have no prior knowledge of these questions.
Step 5: Hot Seat!
Surprising things can be found out during a Hot Seat session and some answers can be completely ridiculous and out of character, in the effort to give any answer in the given time frame. This is by no means a failed result – exactly the opposite! The fact that you recognise your answer as being out of character means you have discovered something about your character that you may not have known before: you know how they would not react to a situation. The idea of character development is research. As such, notes should be taken after any Hot Seat session, in case you forget something you’ve discovered mid-session. The best thing to do in the case of face-to-face Hot Seats is to record them, whether by voice or video, to look at another time. This way, if you get caught up in the madness of answering the questions, you won’t forget what you’ve said.
What to ask?
In Step 4, I mentioned that a Hot Seat partner should have 20-30 questions prepared. This is, perhaps, the trickiest part of the exercise. A few basic questions (3-5) are recommended to help the Hot Seater get into the character’s frame of mind, but the rest of the questions should be a bit more ‘outside the box’. The questions can range over topics: personal preferences, past history, hopes for the future, situational reactions; all questions should be asked directly and answered in the first person.
“What is your main character’s favourite food?”
“She likes ribs.”
Ad-libbing questions can be a good habit to get into if Hot Seating is something you want to implement more than once for your characters’ development. Sometimes, a planned question becomes irrelevant or might seem stale, so if a fresher approach is available, I recommend it. For those who are just starting out, however, the thirty questions should probably be prepared beforehand. I have included a list of example questions I’ve been asked from previous Hot Seating sessions, to give you an idea of how it can play out.
1. How old are you/when were you born?
2. Where were you born?
3. What’s your favourite food?
4. Are you allergic to anything?
5. Cats or dogs (preference)?
6. Why? (repeated at will to further development)
7. What has been the best day of your life so far?
8. And the worst?
9. Do you have any habits you’re ashamed of?
10. What would make you kill someone?
11. Have you ever smoked/taken drugs?
12. What would you do if I poked you in the eye right now?
13. Would you ever wear trainers without socks?
14. Who is your best friend?
15. Where did you and your best friend meet?
16. Will you wear this pink dress?
17. Who is your favourite superhero?
18. What are you most afraid of?
19. Are you romantic?
20. Do you bite sellotape or cut it with scissors?
21. How often do you clean your teeth a day?
22. Do you pick your nose?
23. If you could have one job, what would it be?
24. Would you swim with sharks?
25. Would you go into space?
26. You sneeze into your hand in public and don’t have a tissue. What do you do?
27. Your mother/brother/sister falls over. What do you do?
28. Do you dunk biscuits in your tea?
29. Do you believe in love at first sight?
30. Have you ever stolen anything?
These examples are for an adult character living in the modern age. Obviously, when preparing for a Hot Seat session, it may be useful to give your partner a short bio of the character you want questioned, so they can tailor what they ask you. If you’re writing historical fiction, the modern questions won’t apply. If you’re asking questions of a child character, some of the adult questions may not be suitable. In some cases, it may be preferable not to give any details to your partner, to see what they come up with. Unusual and unexpected results can come from that kind of session. There is only one rule: you must answer every question as your character.