~ By Louise Knott Ahern
I’ve been a reporter for nearly 20 years and have interviewed everyone from heads of state to homeless teens. Every story and interview is different, but one lesson proves true every time. The question you are most afraid to ask is the question you MUST ask.
The same is true for creating believable characters in fiction. The thing you are most afraid to ask about your character is the thing you MUST ask them.
Why? Because just like in real life, that’s where the true story hides. Behind those fears – both the character’s and yours – are the secrets to compelling conflict that can carry a novel.
So putting on my journalist’s hat, here are my recommendations for three questions you absolutely must ask about your hero and heroine before you even start writing.
What is the worst thing that ever happened to him/her? Why was it the worst?
Who we are today is the sum total of everything that has happened to us in our lives. The same is true of your characters. They have a full past that existed before your book begins that made them who they are in chapter one.
In real life, we tell ourselves to focus on all the good things in our lives and to not sweat the small stuff, but that doesn’t make for very compelling fiction. Instead, writers need to flesh out all the bad of their characters’ back stories, because compelling stories are about someone trying to overcome something. It’s the essential element of conflict.
How did that event or incident influence the person your character is at the beginning of the book? Why?
It’s not enough to just know WHAT happened to your character in her past. You must also understand how it affected her because it will dictate everything from her personal mannerisms to her beliefs about life, love and what is important to them.
A well-crafted novel will force your character to take a journey that either directly or indirectly targets the fears and beliefs she developed because of what happened to her in the past. But if you don’t understand how the big, bad incident motivates her, how can you know how she’ll respond to pressure and obstacles throughout the journey?
What does your character fear doing above all else?
Figure it out, and force her to do it. It’s as simple as that.
And if you’re afraid of doing that, ask yourself why. Maybe you’re the one who is afraid to go there, and if so, you must have a reason. Be willing to put your own fears into the book. The story – and your character – will feel that much more authentic.
As you consider these questions about your characters, remember this: Interview subjects in real life rarely tell the absolute, raw truth the first time they are asked a question. Neither do your characters.
So just as reporters must allow an interview subject time to get to the heart of their story, you may have to let these questions rattle around in your mind for a while before you come up with the answers. Give your characters time to answer you truthfully, and be willing to listen when they finally speak up.
Louise Knott Ahern is an award-winning journalist and writing coach who has worked with writers of all experience levels – from beginners working on their first novel to New York Times bestsellers. She’s president and founder of Capital City Writers Association in Lansing, MI and has been an instructor at many regional and national writing conferences around the country, including RWA National. Her work has been honored with numerous awards, including a 2014 Sigma Delta Chi – one of the most prestigious journalism awards in the country. Louise is a member of Romance Writers of America, Society of Professional Journalists, and Investigative Reporters and Editors.