The 3 Questions Every Writer Should Ask Themselves About Their Characters
The first few minutes, hours, and days after you come up with an idea for a novel are a special kind of magic. The creative juices are flowing, you're feeling brilliantly inventive, and you know that this idea out of all the hundreds you've had in the past is special. This idea is the one. But if you're anything like me, after you write a few paragraphs or even a few chapters, you realize you need to step back and think about a few things. One of those things, arguably the most important of those things, is your characters.
All of my most favorite books are character- rather than plot-driven stories. Not that there's anything wrong with a fast-paced plot. But what I love most about literature is how it can get people, in all of our flawed perfection, so right. Reading about a character who means well but just makes matters worse every time they try to help, or a character who struggles with making decisions, or a character who is just downright mean but eventually learns the errors of his or her ways (or not), and being able to see in those characters people I know or myself; being able to learn from the mistakes they make; being able to predict what's coming just because I've come to know them so well—all that stuff is what I love most about reading.
So to create a character like this—one who is complex but relatable; who loves and hates and lives and breathes like a real person; whose motives and actions you understand even when you don't agree with them—you have to ask yourself hundreds of questions. But I think to write a good story, you have to start with these:
What does she want?
This is probably the most important question to answer about your characters, especially your protagonist. You can't have a story without a main character who wants or needs something almost desperately. Desire is fundamentally human: everyone can relate to that feeling because everyone at some point in their lives has wanted something. It can be big or small, but the reader has to understand why it's important to your character.
To illustrate what I mean, lets use an example most people would be familiar with:
Katniss wants to survive the Hunger Games, and then, she wants to save both Peeta and herself.
What is stopping her from getting what she wants?
This question is equally as important as the first because the answer to this question creates the conflict. And a story without conflict is hardly a story at all. This answer gives the plot tension, and gives the protagonist something she needs to overcome.
The conflict can be internal (depression, grief, indecision) or external (an enemy, a mountain, the weather), but it's important that the conflict isn't something that's easily fixable. It has to be something that is challenging for the protagonist, and it's important that they're forced to step outside of their comfort zone (even if it's only a tiny bit) to overcome it.
The Hunger Games themselves are the biggest obstacle in Katniss' story. The rules dictate that there will only be one winner and that Katniss has to kill or be killed.
What does she need to change to overcome that obstacle?
This is a question that's all about agency. The answer gives the character the power to get what she wants, but she has to do something. And each choice that she makes to bring her closer to her desire should move the plot forward.
First, Katniss has to survive the other kids in the Games. So she chooses to make alliances. She does what she has to to protect Peeta. And once they're the last two kids standing, she has to outsmart the Capitol. She has to figure out a way to change the rules of the Games.
So the next time you get a brilliant idea for a novel, ask yourself these questions. Once they're answered, you'll have a rough skeleton of a story. And that's all you need to start writing.