The Known Unknowns is a regular series of blog posts about writing, specifically the stuff we all find ourselves learning and re-learning.
How well do we know our characters? There have been, I’d estimate, 35 kajillion words written about this matter. There are whole books out there for learning your characters. And rightly so: In fiction, as in life, Character is everything.
I once had a writing program for my computer that asked all kinds of questions about the story you were writing. I’d say 70% or more were character-related, even the ones in non-character categories. Once, in a workshop, the teacher handed out a sheet with 20 questions on it about your character. These ranged from “What does she want?” to “What is her most painful memory” to “What does she eat for breakfast?”
These are good things to know. Even the breakfast question, silly as it sounds, can lead you into understanding habits, routines, and how your person takes care of herself. (Note: I have never answered the breakfast question for a character.) And again: Character is everything. This is a whole person you’re creating.
But you can do an awful lot of writing and a lot of answering of questions about your characters and their habits and still not know them in the way which is most important, which is:Â How Does Your Character Work In The Story You’re Telling?
I used to tell my students (and myself) that they had to be able to answer two main questions about their characters:
What does your character want most?
What’s the worst thing that can happen to them?
I still think those are good questions, and I not only meant them in an overall, big-picture sense, I meant for them to be asked for each character in each scene. This is important. You have to know what your character wants and expects in every situation, or else why is the scene there?
But in working with two students recently who are struggling through novels, I realized there need to be two versions of each question. One for the character, author, and reader to know, and one for only the author and reader to know. So here are the Four Questions:
What does she THINK she wants most?
What does she REALLY want most?
Whatâs the worst thing she THINKS could happen?
Whatâs REALLY the worst thing that could happen?
If you’ve never asked and answered these questions before, all of them, I urge you to go do so now. Throw down your laptop, find a notebook or a second, working computer, and do these questions. If you really want to have some fun, ask them of yourself. But bring Kleenex.
I have pages and pages of explanation as to who this or that character is and what they want and how they feel about their father, etc. But these four questions boil it down to the simplest elements, which make them some of the hardest to answer. Case in point: If you’ve answered them in paragraphs, you’re losing sight of the arena in which you are working. These questions are designed to get at the basic, sometimes primal things that motivate your character. Because those, not the ream of social-worker-like case files we all have on our characters, are ultimately what make for good drama.
Here’s an example I like from my student Sharon, who is working on an epic novel about Ruben, a Mexican immigrant in the early 20th century:
1. Â What does he think he wants most?
-To succeed, to be an American
2. Â What does he REALLY want most?
-To belong, love, recognition, accolades
3. Â What’s the worst thing he thinks could happen?
-To fail, to be labeled a Mexican, defeat
4. Â What’s REALLY the worst thing that could happen?
-It’s never enough; not being loved, never belonging, rejection
These are great answers. You’ll notice the answers the character might give (#1 and #3) are fairly surface-level wants and fears, whereas #2 and #4 are much deeper, more primal stuff. Sharon knows this character, and as long as she keeps her eye on these answers and keeps them lined up with the story she’s telling, like the lenses in a telescope, she really cannot go wrong. In fact, knowing her story (so far) as we do, the workshop picked out that phrase “It’s never enough” as the mantra for this book, its guiding principle: No matter what happens to Ruben, it’s never enough for him. Because he is fundamentally broken, as all good main characters are.
That’s what I like about the Four Questions, by the way: there’s what the character knows or thinks of themselves, and there’s the reality, which is known (for at least most of the story) only to the author and reader. I’m suspicious of a character who can answer the second and fourth questions for themselves, at least in the first half of a story. If you think a self-aware, actualized character makes for good drama, I would point you toÂ Don Quixote,Â Macbeth, Mrs. Dalloway, orÂ Oedipus Rex, or any great work of fiction: these characters are all dead certain about what they want, and none has a clue as to what’s really driving them.
If you know — truly know — the answers to these four questions, then you will have a good handle on your character and your story. You will also be doing the thing which is maybe most important in writing, which is creating a communion with the reader. We talk a lot about the “contract” between writer and reader, but a contract implies a thing that’s established at the outset, only to be fulfilled or broken by the end. That sounds fun.
A communion, though, is an ongoing partnership, a shared experience carried through from beginning of story to end. If your reader knows your character Daniel is ultimately motivated by a need for approval, then when he falls in with the charismatic drug lord RJ, it’s doubly tragic: once because no good can come from such a thing; and twice because we know why Daniel’s letting himself do this dumb thing, and we know RJ will ultimately manipulate this need in Daniel, certainly with tragic results for someone*.
That second tragedy, isn’t just a plot point, it’s one that comes directly from Character, and that’s what engages a reader. We not only want a character who’s fascinating and engaging, we want one who we understand better than they understand themselves.
*I made these guys up for this example. Feel free to borrow the timeless characters of Daniel the ambitious patsy and RJ the charismatic drug lord.
Photo credit:Â http://www.flickr.com/photos/zappowbang/with/2328170056/