Apr 30, 2023



 Recently, as I was puttering around on Twitter, I ran across several tweets from writers to the writing community, asking specific questions about their MC's. These questions ranged through a variety of topics: "What did your MC have for breakfast?" "Did your MC have a pet as a child?" "How old was your MC when he/she had their first kiss?"

If these types of questions help you, if this gets your creative juices flowing, then, by all means, keep asking these types of questions. There is no one right way to do this, after all. The acid test is, “Does it work?” So again, if this helps you, keep doing it. That said, unless these questions specifically play into the narrative in some way (i.e., unless your MC suddenly gets food poisoning because of what he/she had for breakfast), then it is my strong opinion that questions like these are a waste of time. That doesn't mean you shouldn't be asking questions, but you'll save yourself a lot of time and energy if you learn to ask the right ones. The right questions are those that matter -- the ones that play into the narrative -- things that are important for the story NOW. If you don't know which questions to ask, I've come up with a list of 10 KEY QUESTIONS to help you flesh out your story. Ready? Here we go. 

1. WHO is the main character? I don’t mean their name. I mean, who are they really? Who are they at their core?  What kind of person are they? What are they basically like? Also, are they sympathetic, likable, or intriguing? Why? What makes them fall into which category? And for the bonus, how do you know this? I.e., What actions or behaviors do they display that cause you to come to this conclusion, or what sorts of behaviors will they display in the story to help the audience see them this way? 

2. What does he/she WANT at the beginning of the story? Remember, even before the inciting incident, your character must ALREADY BE PURSUING A GOAL. There's something they want when the story starts. The main character is already in action. So, what are they working to achieve, or what goal are they chasing when the story opens, and WHY do they want it? What do they think they will gain by achieving it?

3. What does he/she NEED? Inevitably, every character has some kind of emotional need that drives them. What is their fatal flaw, wound, blind-spot, trauma, or emotional need that makes them want what they want in the first place? What do they need to overcome to get it? Or to become the person they were always meant to become? What’s holding them back internally?

4. What is the INCITING INCIDENT of the story? What happens that launches the main character on his/her adventure? What sets them off in their new direction? Remember, the inciting incident gives the MC a new goal. Something BIG must happen that sends them off in this new direction.

5. What does he/she WANT now? As a result of the inciting incident, your character now has a new goal to pursue. This is the meta goal that must sustain your character for the entire rest of the story, and it needs to be clear and tangible (at least to you). So, the inciting incident gives the character this new goal that they must pursue relentlessly for the entire rest of the story. WHY? What does it matter? What’s at stake? What happens if they win or fail? Story stakes should always be life or death, even if the death is figurative. 

6. What are the three first steps the character would logically take to pursue their goal? Once your main character is given a clear objective, they must take logical action to pursue it. By logical, I mean it should be reasonable and follow some kind of suitable order. If their goal is to win some big dancing contest but they don't know how to dance, then it would be illogical for them to start selling tickets to the big show. First, they better learn how to dance. So, what is the most logical step for them to take to accomplish that part of the goal? The goal they are given by the inciting incident should be so clear that the character takes specific, logical steps to pursue it in an appropriate and reasonable order.  

7. How does the character change over the course of the telling? Every character starts out being one type of person, but by the end, they’ve changed, for better or worse, because of the adventure they’ve been on. So, how will your character change? What will be different about him/her by the time the story comes to an end? How will they have changed or grown over the course of the story? What is their basic arc? Also, for the bonus, identify any moments in the story that will nudge them towards that end “being” -- moments when they move closer to becoming the person they need to be by the end. 

8. Who are the supporting characters in your story, what do THEY want, and how do they help or hinder? Writers often provide archetypical characters to assist the MC's journey without giving these characters a life of their own. This is a mistake. Good stories are those where the supporting characters don't exist solely for the MC's benefit. These people may help or hinder your MC, but the key is they each must be pursuing their own goals, which will either clash or mesh with your MC's goals. Only when the supporting characters have their own lives will your scenes be dynamic and interesting. So, spend some time thinking through your cast of supporting characters, who they are to the main character and what they want for themselves. 

9. What are the "rules" of your story universe?  I'm not talking about things like mythology or magic, although certainly that if you're writing fantasy or sci-fi. But all stories have their own "rules" to follow. If you're writing an inner-city drama about an art teacher struggling to teach her students to paint, then the rules might be that there's no money budgeted for the program and no support from administrators, and this becomes an obstacle he/she must overcome. Figure out what the situation is for the characters in that world, too. (I.e., What's happening to the students because they have no art program, and what does this teacher believe art has the power to do?). These are the story world “rules” that must be conveyed early in the story so that we know what's really at stake and why.  

10. How does it end? You may not know all the details about the ending, but in general, you need some idea as to how the story will wrap up. Will your character win or fail? And in general, HOW will the events culminate in the climax? Again, you won’t know all the nuances as to how you'll get there, but you need to know the basic direction you're heading. Without this compass, stories drift aimlessly without purpose. So, you should have some basic idea as to how this whole thing ends, even before you sit down to write. 

When I can confidently answer these ten questions, I know I'm well on my way to being able to flesh out a great story, and I can proceed with the actual writing even though there are plenty of things I still don't know. Hopefully, you find these questions helpful, too. If you need clarity on anything, or if I can be of service, please reach out to me at the storytellersmission.com