The Single Most Important Thing to Ask Your Character
Developing characters is a different story for every book and every writer. Some characters open up their whole lives to us the second they step on the page, while other characters give us very little to work with. My current WIP (work in progress) features a character that falls into this second group. After a whole year of planning and drafting this book, I still hadn't figured her out--until this past Saturday, when I unlocked her whole character by asking one simple question.
What do you want?
Let me explain. On Saturday night, I was reviewing my outline, moving scenes around, omitting scenes that weren't pulling their weight, and adding notes for new scenes. There's one character in particular that I've been struggling with for months. In fact, she's the only character who's plotline has not come as naturally as the others. While I was working on the first draft, I even created alternate drafts in which she did not exist or drafts where her plotline was paired down dramatically.
None of those drafts felt quite right, so I kept plugging away at the original draft, not sure what to make of her. I kept her because I sensed she was meant to fill a void in this book--fill it in a way that was unknown to me at the time. There was always something (my intuition, perhaps), that held me back from deleting her. Although she's my least favorite character, I liked her enough to miss her.
Saturday, however, was one of those days where I had again entertained the thought of erasing her from the landscape of my imagination. You have no idea how many times I went through my outline and deleted chunks of her scenes. Why? I noticed in my first draft that there are too many scenes that develop characters but don't move the plot forward. Nothing exciting really happens until halfway through that book, so part of my task for outlining draft two has been figuring out how I can get to all that juicy horror stuff earlier on.
This character's scenes were the easiest to sacrifice. Her plotline was pretty boring to me, and I didn't see how it contributed to the overarching themes in any meaningful way. That's why I thought I may as well go as far as deleting her for good. It may have been the best way to drop from 109,000 words to 90,000 words as I planned.
Just as I was about to hit the backspace button on a bunch of highlighted sentences, I decided to text my brother and writing buddy, Kyle. He helped me brainstorm this story way back in December, when this book was but a glimmer in my eye, so he has a good idea of who the characters are and what the plot is (white scribbles denote me hiding MAJOR SPOILERS).
A few minutes later, Kyle called me. He asked me to reiterate the major themes of my book. Then he asked what each of my characters wanted. I was able to identify what my other characters wanted, but when I arrived at Carrie, I realized I didn't have an answer. She wasn't after anything.
Then something weird happened. I made an off-handed, somewhat-joking comment about what she did want. Much in the same way my brother joked a year ago about adding a monster to a book that was originally meant to be a quiet, coming-of-age, historical fiction novel. It turned out I was writing a horror novel, too.
[actual footage of the monster in my book laughing at me for thinking the book was a quiet, historical fiction novel]
The very thing I joked about her wanting turned out to be the very thing she'd longed for this whole time. It was no simple thing, either. It was there the whole time, waiting a whole year for me to uncover it. How do I know I figured it out? Simply put, I felt it. I felt this knot in my chest just thinking about what she wanted and what was holding her back from getting it. It added another layer of complexity and texture to the entire novel, and now I can't think about what this book would be like without Carrie--my dear girl Carrie.
So, if you feel bored with a character--if you feel like he or she doesn't add enough to the themes in your book, ask this simple question: what does she want? What does she want, what's preventing her from getting it, and what happens if she doesn't get it?
Once you figure it out, you'll have your story.
Shout out to my brother Kyle for inspiring content for a great blog post.
Here's a picture of us circa 2007:
And another one from 2011:
Here's my favorite one because it's a foreshadowing of what's to come. I think it's from Christmas 2015. Love you, Kyle!