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It pays to ask the tough questions… of your characters

So, I was reading this blog post by Kristen Lamb, and I got to thinking what a good exercise it would be to ask my own characters the questions near the bottom of the post. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent a whole book and nearly a half with these guys, I know them pretty well. But, do you know how easy it is to just carry on thinking you know your characters without really stopping to think? I’ll tell you… really, really easy.

The questions are (paraphrased):

  • What is his/her greatest strength/weakness? (Bearing in mind, the greatest strength is often also the greatest weakness)
  • What is his/her greatest fear?
  • What problem could make him/her struggle the most?
  • What problem could force tough moral choices?
  • What problem has the highest stakes?

Now, the last three questions are more “story” questions that are derived from the first two, which are “character” questions. The last three only develop real impact once the first two are answered.

I asked the questions of Llew and Jonas. Llew didn’t surprise me much. Jonas shouldn’t have. And yet, in the process of asking the questions, I realised I needed to go back to a couple of scenes and ramp up his reactions to certain events, because they were way too close to his greatest fear… and if his greatest fear is being tickled, you’d think he’d react, amiright? Not that I didn’t have him reacting at all, you understand… but when I got thinking about these scenes through his eyes, I could feel my own anger boiling… which tells me that I need to show Jonas’ anger, even if he does have to keep it under wraps for the time being.

Let’s have a wee look at what I got…

What is Llew’s greatest strength/weakness?
Well, she’s street savvy and independent. She’s learned to rely on herself and no one else.
That sounds alright. How could that be a weakness? Well, when things get too tough for her to manage on her own, she has to struggle with the idea of trusting and relying on other people… It’s not an end-of-the-world dilemma for most, but when you have several nasty factions after you, you kind of need to be able to ask for help…

What is Llew’s greatest fear?
Again, it’s not a real game-changer. All Llew has ever wanted was to live the kind of life she gets to choose, not dictated by her station in life or what others want for or from her… just what she wants to do. It’s a big dream for someone in Llew’s position. In fact, she lives this fear every day… she is in no position to choose her own life path. And so, her story goal is to make her dream happen. In order to do that, she must remain free of those who would capture her and use her for their own benefit.

I realise it’s entirely possible that, for some readers, this won’t be enough to identify with Llew. Her story goal could seem fairly minor, except when you realise that, if she is captured, those who would do so are unlikely to do nice things with her power.
Still, in Llew’s head, there is nothing more important than her dream.
It’s a fairly easy goal to mess with, too… The antagonistic forces all have goals directly in opposition to Llew’s.

Right, onto Jonas.

What is Jonas’ greatest strength/weakness?
Well, he excels in physical prowess. He is the strongest/fastest man alive. But because of the speed with which he can react to things, there is the potential for him to cause huge damage. And so, he has been raised to respect and listen to authority. This has always served him well in the past. In HEALER’S TOUCH we saw him straining against this a little, but ultimately, he still turned to his leadership for guidance.
So, what happens if this leadership falls apart? (I’ll leave you to ponder that…)

What is Jonas’ greatst fear?
Right about now, it would be easy to say that it would be the loss of that leadership… and yes, that would freak him out a bit – having to make his own decisions after he’s been brought up believing he’ll likely make the wrong ones… Yep, that’s scary.
But, for Jonas, his biggest fear (mainly because he can’t even imagine losing his guidance structure) is seeing all those he loves die around him. He would fear being alone, but he’d probably rather that than continue to watch people die. You see, he’s had a pretty rough run of things: first his parents, killed when he was seven; then he and his brother were split as young teens; then his brother, Braph, switched allegiance to work for the enemy nation; and then, most recently, Jonas’ first wife was brutally murdered. OK, so his brother isn’t dead, but they’re not family anymore. And so, Jonas’ greatest dream has always been to have a family again.
And so he has a dilemma… Does he have another go at having a family, at the risk of them being killed by someone wanting to hurt him? Or does he remain alone, denying himself his greatest desire?

You can see why this sort of character features quite often in stories from many genres. It’s a tough call. On the one hand, you could say they’re being silly denying themselves… Just because something has happened to their loved ones in the past is no guarantee of a repeat. And why deny yourself that kind of love because of fear? Of course, if he does give in, and his loved ones do die… well… he’s gonna feel pretty stink (and so would us readers for being all “Oh, it won’t happen again”… of course, this is fiction, it almost has to happen again…).

Anyway, I suspect this depth of character is why Jonas seems to be someone that readers easily identify with (from comments so far). And I suspect it’s why WARRIOR’S TOUCH is already feeling like a “fun” ride to me. While I’ve opted to mostly remain inside Llew’s head, so far, it really is Jonas’ buttons I’m pushing. To quote Braph: “He is fun to play with.”

8 thoughts on “It pays to ask the tough questions… of your characters”

    • Thanks.
      Yes, I think it’s worthwhile. Even if you think you know your characters, I find their fears can change as a story progresses – as they learn new things to be scared of, or if they have no choice but to face a fear, a different aspect might come into play.
      Plus, it just takes such a long time to write a novel, it’s easy to forget how these characteristics come into play… always worthwhile reminding ourselves!

  1. Great exercise. I make up character bios with tons of info before I write a single word. I like to have all my ducks in a row. For me, it helps make the writing go smoother. It’s fun seeing your answers. You know your characters well. Now you get to mess with them! Have fun writing! 🙂

    • Hi Brian,
      Yeah, I had all those questionnaires when I was working on Healer’s Touch… but it’s so long ago! I do find a refresher course helpful, just to keep all this stuff at the front of my mind – it gets pushed aside by real life doings all the time.

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