Friday, March 11, 2011

Perfect questions

When I was in the midst of writing Project Sparkle, my tutor asked me about two adult characters in the book, a husband and wife. While some of my fellow students found the wife funny, my tutor was concerned that she was too mean and nasty, while the husband was too good. "Why did they ever get married?" she asked me. "What do they see in each other?"

At first the point seemed rather nit-picky. All couples grow and change in their relationships. These characters had grown apart. Besides, the story wasn't even about them.

But Julia's question stuck with me. And every time I wrote another scene where one of these characters appeared, I found myself asking, "Why are they still together?"

And because Julia was my teacher, and I wanted a good grade, I dug a bit further. I did some journaling on the characters' backgrounds, how they had changed, why. I discovered, rather surprisingly, that the wife was quite similar in personality to my main character. No wonder they fought with each other so much. I also explored the good aspects of the wife's personality, why her husband first fell in love with her, why he still loved her, and why they were a good match for each other, even though she could be mean and nasty. I realized the wife could go through her own small transformation at the end of the book. It's a scene I love, and several of my beta readers have loved it, too, including Julia.

I think that's one of the things that can make a novel really work: all those little details, minor characters who are made fuller, rounder, given opportunities to shine (in good or bad ways). But that's not what this post is about!

Rather, I've been thinking about the question lately: "What do they see in each other?"

You see, it hasn't been a one-off question. Project Demo also has one parent who is difficult (difficult parents, dead parents, all staples of teen literature). So I started wondering why the couple is still together. Do they gossip about each other? Complain to their kids? Avoid each other? File for divorce? Sure, they're minor characters, but exploring their relationship has helped me to flesh them out, and their stories.

A few other Julia questions have popped up while I've been working on Project Demo. Is this OTT (Over The Top, Julia's abbreviation for scenes that are a too dramatic or cliche)? Is it clear what the character's feeling here?

I like to think I'm building up a toolbox of great questions, and with my toolbox becoming a better self-critic. Do you have any questions you always ask of your writing?


  1. Oh the question about couples is a great one. In fact, I have some parents I've been trying to figure out in my current WIP. I'll have to apply it and see what happens.

    A couple questions I've been asking a lot recently, inspired by James Scott Bell and Donald Maass, are: So what? Why should my readers care? It's my way of making sure the stakes are as high as they need to be for my characters.

  2. Oh good, glad to share a question with you, too, Anna!

    "Why should my readers care?" is a great question. Seemingly obvious, but then when we get caught up in our stories and worlds, it's so easy to lose sight of that. Thanks!

  3. The questions I always ask myself are "What am I really trying to say here?", "Why would she do that?", and "Will anyone reading this find it riveting enough to keep reading?"

    That last one is the toughest. When I'm feeling good about myself, the answer is usually positive. I try to feel good about myself.

  4. All great questions, helping to focus on the point, keeping true to your character, and to your reader. Feeling good about yourself is so important, but of course it can be deceptive, too! That's why I think some of these specific questions are so useful.

  5. I've been reading a lot of screenwriting books, so lately I've been asking myself--does it have good gap? Gap being the distance between what the reader or main character thinks will happen and what really happens.

  6. Ohhh, what a fascinating question, Lena, and one I've never heard before, at least not the term "gap." Really important to make sure our writing is original and surprising. Thanks!

  7. I always ask "what is his/her core need?" (via Elizabeth George) even for the minor characters. It helps me see the characters' reactions clearer and understand why there is a conflict.

    Good question and helpful follow-up in comments. Thanks!

  8. Ohhh, I like that Bridgette. You're right, it's a great way to make sure all of your characters are real people with real desires. Thanks for sharing!


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