When we were kids, my brother and I were notorious for our inability to choose favorite things. We would spend the day at the zoo, Mom and Dad would want to know what our favorite part was, and…
“I don’t know.”
It drove our parents crazy.
I can’t speak for my brother, but I know that at least on my part, it wasn’t stubbornness or anything like that. I genuinely did not know. I enjoyed lots of things about the day, and I couldn’t pick a favorite.
I do have favorites in some categories. Among others, I have a favorite color (purple), a favorite book (The Lord of the Rings), and a favorite math problem (7 x 3 = 21).
But I didn’t sit down one day with a list and assign myself these favorites. They developed gradually.
If you are a writer, you have probably seen lots of lists with titles like, “32 Things You Should Know About Your Character Before Writing”. It can be easy to start to think that if you don’t know your character’s favorite color, joke, pizza toppings, and pair of shoes, along with a whole bunch of things like their deepest fear and biggest regret, they’re not real enough and you can’t write about them.
But maybe you can.
Recently, I came across this on Pinterest:
I am definitely Writer B. It was quite freeing to see that there is apparently at least one other person out there who considers this a valid way to write.
Sometimes I found out about a character’s favorite things. I have a reformed villain who considers herself Extremely Sophisticated in Every Way who secretly loves eating Nutella straight out of the container with a spoon. Another character shares my love of the band Yellowcard, though we have different favorite albums (sometimes I make him come on road trips with me so we can jam, though he tends to refuse to wear his seat belt, and I don’t approve).
But usually these things develop gradually. Either in story context, or when I’m thinking about the character while doing other things, or the like. If I try to make up answers for a list, it feels like I’m trying to force things onto the character that never quite fit properly.
And really, you don’t actually need all these things. I haven’t yet found myself in a situation where I needed to know a character’s favorite joke (just watch, now that I said that, it will become absolutely vital for a story someday soon). Maybe your character loves jokes and goes around telling everyone their favorite. Maybe they’ll need to tell their favorite joke to save their life. Otherwise… You can probably get by without it.
I am a real person with depth, and I often couldn’t answer all the questions on these lists about myself. I figure that if that is the case, a character can feel real and have depth even if I can’t answer all the questions about them either.
If you’re the sort of person who loves these lists and finds them to be exactly what you need for developing characters, that’s excellent. Keep it up, chief, keep it up.
If not, if fully-formed characters just exist in your head but you couldn’t tell me their favorite joke to save your life or theirs, maybe you’re also a Writer B. Embrace it. It’s fun.