Wednesday, March 12, 2014

What's Up With You?

As a young writer, I read a lot of books about the craft. They all have a few common threads--success as a writer is mostly due to diligence, hard work, and perseverance--but I'd like to share one (though I'm far from an expert) about what makes a good story. It involves putting character above all else.

Motivation is paramount. Greater than what he likes or dislikes, greater than his appearance, greater than what he does for a living. I've found that the veteran writers who share their insights all agree--without believable character motivation, a story will flounder and fall short of greatness.

Easier said than done, I say.

So here are a few questions I've molded into my own checklist, which I reference whenever I'm in a funk on a first draft or editing a completed story.

First, what does he want? How far is he willing to go to get it? Or, What rules is he willing to break?
What is he afraid to lose? To what lengths will he go, and what will he sacrifice, to protect it?
What does he value? And, what might happen to cause him to throw aside that value?
What strengths and weaknesses will help/hurt him?

(Substitute "she" as needed.)

The answers to these, revealed in the prose, make the character seem more than a list of traits and closer to an actual human being that we might know from our own lives. Try to answer them from your favorite story or novel. I've found that the answers to the hard ones, the ones about breaking rules and discarding values, are the ones that reveal a great story.

So next time you're stuck in a rough draft and feel like asking, "What's this story about, anyway?" instead ask, "Who is this story about?" It might set you (and your main character) back on right paths.


  1. Having heard lots of these 'Character building' questions, I'd say these are the most useful. I've been struggling with my main character and basically had come to use these very questions but it took me rather a long time to get there, so wish I'd read this a year ago!

  2. Human beings are not free of flaws so why should a character have to be.

  3. Depends. Yes, characters are important, but there's plenty of fiction out there where characters are nonexistent (Lovecraft, anyone?) Hell, I know people who could care less about the characters! And if you've got the prose to impress, seemingly editors won't care either. (Yes, this would include editors who often ask for characters...the hypocrites.)

    Then you've got the characters who aren't human at all.

  4. I agree. I also think if you figure out what's the one worse scenario for your character and the series of events that would get them to that point, then you end up with fabulous plot. That was what I didn't get when I was younger. I could never come up with a good plot because I wasn't thinking about what would be the breaking point for the character.

  5. There have been at the 'what's this story about anyway?' phase.