Wednesday, December 10, 2014

How Does Your Character Answer Questions?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

In any story, information is going to be shared between characters, but it doesn't have to all sound the same. How a character responds can show both their voice and personality, as well help writers control how and when information is conveyed to a reader.

Everyone has their own way of answering questions, and that even changes depending on who we're talking to. How we answer someone in authority is typically different from how we answer someone we have authority over, and both of those are different from how we answer a friend or loved one.

When creating your characters, think about how they'd answer questions. This could also affect world building if there are any cultural or social issues in play.

Questions and Social Order

Society has a pecking order, and how we interact with others along that social ladder affect how we might answer their questions. Those at the bottom of the ladder might even have strict rules for answering questions from those at the top. In an epic fantasy novel this could be a major component of the plot, just as it could be vital in a contemporary middle grade novel set in the dangerous landscape of eighth grade. Try looking at the social order of your novel and ask:
  • How does someone at the bottom of the social order answer those above them?
  • How do those at the top answer those below them?
  • How do peers answer questions of each other?
  • Are there are social norms that must be followed?
  • Are there any answers that just aren't given? Things not said?

How someone answers questions based on social order can tell you a lot about both their personality and attitudes, as well as the world they live in. A character who always defies authority is probably one who doesn't adhere to social norms and will answer (or not answer) according to that personality.

(Here's more on getting to know your characters)

Questions and Sharing Information

The goal of a question is usually to learn information from another person. How that character chooses to answer can show how willing they are to share information, possible trust issues, a willingness to cooperate, a desire to show off, the desire to provoke or make others uncomfortable, or even a need to feel liked and be useful. When your character is asked for information, how do they answer?
  • Are they forthcoming and give full and complete answers?
  • Are they evasive, either not answering at all or trying to avoid the question?
  • Do they answer as little as possible, perhaps give one or two word answers?
  • Do they give too much information, sharing information that wasn't requested?
  • Do they answer the question with a question in an attempt to learn more themselves?
  • Do they misunderstand what was being asked?
  • Do they try to answer a different question?

Sometimes a reader can learn more from what a character won't answer than what they actually say. Subtext can play a wonderful role in two characters trying hard not to answer each other's questions, or trying to answer questions they think the other person is asking.

(Here's more on developing different voices for different POV characters)

Questions and Style

Since questions usually fall under dialog, they're a great opportunity to show a character's voice. Funny characters can display their comedic chops, shifty characters can obfuscate, or eager characters can read more into everything. Think about the specifics in how a question is answered--the words used, the syntax, the basis conversational style that's unique to that character.
  • Do they make a joke?
  • Do they answer questions with questions?
  • Are they obvious or sneaky about it?
  • Does it sound like an afterthought or deliberate?
  • Are they hesitant or confident?
  • Are they sarcastic or genuine?
  • Do they respond in a way to put the other person at ease or to agitate them?

A character's personality shines through no matter what they're doing or saying, so take advantage of all the opportunities you have to show who that character is.

(Here's more on character voices in non-POV characters)

Next time your character is asked a question, think about how they answer and what that says about who they are.

How does your favorite character answer questions? 

Find out more about characters and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Oh, this is a LOT of fun to play with, as a writer. It's a major part of where characterization shines—or falls flat, if the writer gives all the characters the selfsame patterns.

    1. Especially with secondary characters who might not get as much attention during the development stage.

  2. I need to remember this when I'm revising!

    1. I have it on my revision to-do list :) "Do the characters have unique voices?"

  3. This dynamic can change based on who has the power in any given scenario. If the character has information someone else wants and knows it gives them power over them, then the character probably won't just spill everything at once. I seriously think this is the only reason all those "wise mentor" characters don't just tell the mentee everything up front (apart from not wanting to spoil the plot). If they hold on to the information they know, they can control the wayward, rebellious mentee because the mentee thinks the mentor has something they want or is wise just because they act like that information is something they are privileged to have. This can, of course, backfire horribly.

    1. Absolutely. That's a great question to ask, actually. Who has the power here? Who is willing (or not) to share information and how do they get it?