Tuesday, March 09, 2021

9 Questions You Must Ask Your Main Character

By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton

Part of The How They Do It Series

JH: Since characters are the reason a story exists, it's good to know certain things about them. Laurence MacNaughton shares questions to get to the heart of your charactersand your story.

A memorable main character lingers in a reader's memory far longer than any details about the plot. That's why your main character is the single most important part of your story. If you want to create a character that readers will remember for years to come, first get inside your character's head and ask them these nine questions.

1. Who are you and what you do?

What we're looking for here is your character's "high concept." This can be as simple as an adjective and a profession: a notorious outlaw, a heavy-drinking ad executive, a time-traveling detective. Whatever. It's your story.

2. What kind of trouble are you already in?

We're not talking about the main plot of the story here. We're talking about the trouble your character is already facing before they even show up on the page. Their own personal subplot.

Do not let your main character walk onto the page without a care in the world. That's plain boring. And the single worst storytelling sin you can commit is to be boring.

Start the story with your protagonist already facing some kind of trouble. Then hit them with your main plot on top of that.

3. What do you most want to achieve by the end of this story?

Okay, now we'll talk about your main plot. Take a step back and imagine that you can see the entire book in your mind's eye, from beginning to end. Over the course of the whole story, what is the most important thing your protagonist is trying to do?

That goal drives the main plot of your entire story. It starts with a verb. For example:
  • Find a missing person.
  • Stop a killer.
  • Win a competition.
  • Escape a sinking ship.
  • Return home safely.

(Here's more with Three Questions to Get to the Heart of Your Story)

4. What terrible thing will happen if you don't succeed?

Why does your protagonist need to find this missing person or stop this killer? What happens if they fail? How will that destroy the protagonist, or someone or something they dearly care about? This question establishes the stakes of your story.

5. Who or what is stopping you?

Brainstorm a list of all the potential reasons why your protagonist could fail. What obstacles stand in the way? The more conflict you can dream up, the more interesting your story will become.

Look at the problem your protagonist is facing. Who caused this problem? Who benefits the most from this situation? How you answer that tells you volumes about your antagonist. And a good antagonist can make or break your book.

6. Where do you first show up in the story?

This is strictly a location question. Where does the protagonist first appear? Describe the location using all of your senses. Bonus: figure out how this location is personally connected to the protagonist. Do they live here? Work here? Hang out with their friends here? How do they feel about this place? What's different about it today?

(Here's more with 3 Steps to Ground Readers in Your Story World)

7. What makes us care about you?

There are six main ways to build empathy for your protagonist. Pick at least one and put it in your first chapter:
  • They go out of their way to help someone in need.
  • They are in danger, or something they care about is threatened.
  • They display impressive skills or abilities.
  • They are funny and entertaining.
  • They suffer some kind of undeserved misfortune.
  • Someone else demonstrates that they deeply care about this character.

8. What important thing is missing from your life?

This dives deeper than the protagonist's external goal. It explains the reason why they are going after that goal in the first place. There's something wrong or missing from their life, and they believe that achieving this external goal will make them feel whole again.

Note that the protagonist probably doesn't realize this on a conscious level. But it really helps you tell the story if you can figure it out.

9. What's your biggest personal rule or motto?

What we're looking for here is something that begins with "I never..." or "I always..."

This rule is often something the character came up with as a defensive mechanism after getting hurt in the past. It tells you that they are still carrying around an old inner wound, and this rule or motto is supposed to prevent them from getting hurt again.

It gives you two story opportunities. First, an instant way to generate conflict with another character who bumps up against this rule. And second, it shows you a way to give this character an arc, if they can learn to grow beyond their old hurt.

(Here's more with Brainstorming Your Character's Emotional Wound)

But! You don't have to answer all of these questions right now.

Not every writer likes to plan things out ahead of time. I get it.

If you prefer to start with a blank page and make up your story as you go along, go for it. You don't have to answer all of these questions ahead of time. Just keep this list handy, and fill it in as the answers come to you:

1. Who are you and what you do?

2. What kind of trouble are you already in?

3. What do you most want to achieve by the end of this story?

4. What terrible thing will happen if you don't succeed?

5. Who or what is stopping you?

6. Where do you first show up in the story?

7. What makes us care about you?

8. What important thing is missing from your life?

9. What's your biggest personal rule or motto?

The more answers you have, the more story opportunities they create.

What questions do you have about your characters?

Leave a comment below or connect with me on my author website at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

Laurence MacNaughton is the author of more than a dozen novels, novellas, and short stories. His work has been praised by Booklist, Publishers Weekly, RT Book Reviews, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. He lives in Colorado with his wife and too many old cars. Try his stories for free at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

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About It Happened One Doomsday

Magic is real. Only a handful of natural-born sorcerers can wield its arcane power against demons, foul creatures, and the forces of darkness. These protectors of the powerless are descendants of an elite order. The best magic-users in the world.

Unfortunately, Dru isn’t one of them.

Sure, she’s got a smidge of magical potential. She can use crystals to see enchantments or brew up an occasional potion. And she can research practically anything in the library of dusty leather-bound tomes she keeps stacked in the back of her little store. There, sandwiched between a pawn shop and a 24-hour liquor mart, she sells enough crystals, incense, and magic charms to scrape by. But everything changes the day a handsome mechanic pulls up in a possessed black muscle car, his eyes glowing red.

Just being near Greyson raises Dru’s magical powers to dizzying heights. But he’s been cursed to transform into a demonic creature that could bring about the end of the world.

Then she discovers that the Harbingers, seven fallen sorcerers, want to wipe the planet clean of humans and install themselves as new lords of an unfettered magical realm. And when they unearth the Apocalypse Scroll, the possibility of a fiery cosmic do-over suddenly becomes very real.

There’s only one chance to break Greyson’s curse and save the world from a fiery Doomsday – and it’s about to fall into Dru’s magically inexperienced hands....

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1 comment:

  1. Great questions. I've just saved your list for future use.