The Art of Crafting Your Story by Asking Questions and Developing Characters
Here is the ultimate guide of story-making writers need
Characters are your novel’s soul.
From the conflict to the plot to the setting — all the elements of your story revolve around them. Answering questions about them can help us map out the story.
(Note: I use female pronouns for the protagonist and male pronouns for the antagonist and the side character.)
Part 1: Creating the protagonist and the beginning
1a: Who is your main character
Try to describe your protagonist in one line, as you would introduce yourself. For example, Harry Potter is a wizard, and the son of James and Lily Potter, famous for surviving the killing curse. As simple as that — you gave her an ‘identification mark’ (like the scar on Harry’s forehead).
Part 2: Making your protagonist proactive
2a: What does your character need and want
Now that you have given your protagonist an identity, you need your story to progress — ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ are this carriage’s horses.
Writers often get confused between the two terms. Broadly, Wants is what your character believes would lead her to happiness, Needs is the act that would actually help her reach it.
Marlin wants to top his exams, but he struggles to do so as he desires to perform well at ten other things as well. His need is to stay focused only on the subject and work hard, though he realizes it much later. — (Example by the author)
Part 3: Adding tension and conflict
3a: Who/What holds the protagonist from getting to her wants
Life shouldn’t be easy for your protagonist.
There should always be boulders blocking the way to her goals. The answer to this question points towards your antagonist/antagonist force. The struggle against him/it drives the plot.
The vital factor here is her “Lie” — a flawed belief she holds.
The protagonist pursues what she wants, facing obstacles and creating the action of the story; this forms the external conflict. When she fails, she realizes she needs to change her core belief to make outcomes favorable — this struggle is the inner conflict.
At the climax, if she has a positive character arc, she wins by changing. The opposite happens if she doesn’t change.
For example, in Cars, Lightning McQueen thinks that the world revolves around him until circumstances frown upon his belief. He is forced to change. This lie connects with the inner conflict (his ego), the outer conflict (the race), and the themes (collaboration and humility).
He is starved for power and revenge and offers them to his followers as well. Percy gets a glimpse of his ideas and they make him question his own belief of whether the current Gods are good. Just when Kronos is on the verge of developing his power to the full extent, Percy understands the helplessness of Gods and busts his Lie, winning.
Part 4: Giving meaning to the opposition
4a: Who is the antagonist? What does he want and need (If he is a person and not a force)?
One common error writers execute is making the antagonist challenge the main character for “the sake of it” and being “inherently evil”. ’Tis the dumbest excuse I have ever heard. Let the antagonist oppose her because he thinks he is right; as T.S. Eliot noted: “Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.”
When your protagonist challenges the plot, let the plot challenge her back in a harsher way; make the scales tip in the antagonist’s favor.
Take Thanos as an example.
He has no “tragic” back-story that many writers fuss about, nor does he desire to wipe out half of the Earth’s population without a reason. He firmly believes in his cause and is similar to a religious zealot, willing to do anything to make ends meet. His win in Infinity War — his power and threat — and then his defeat in Endgame is what makes him a memorable villain.
Part 5: Giving personality and depth to the characters
5a: How does your protagonist look
To add lifelike instances in your novel, we should ensure characters to sparkle with their own personalities. The first item that differentiates us is our looks.
Describing people is a tricky job.
You mustn’t overdo or underdo the descriptions — you need to find the sweet spot. If you go too specific straightaway and write, “Robert had a seven inch rectangular face with small eyes of black and hair cropped and black as well”, readers would dislike the description because it doesn’t leave room for their imagination.
To ace this art, try describing people around you.
I describe my friend Sharma as “an agile, sure-footed and thick brown-haired girl”. I don’t bother to map her every feature; I go with her most apparent characteristics and foibles.
5b: What are the foibles your protagonist has
If she gets nervous easily, she might bite her nails often; she might run her fingers in her hair because of its smoothness. Let people know your protagonist by her footsteps.
5c: Where does your protagonist live? What is her ethnicity? What are her strengths and weaknesses?
Multiple questions like these polish up the novel.
Her ethnicity and family determine her culture (Rubeus Hagrid speaks with a unique intonation being a semi-literate half-giant), her talents can be made into her strength (Clary Fray’s artistic skills and angel blood enables her to create runes), and her loved ones can be turned into her weakness by exploitation by the antagonist (Annabeth Chase is captured by the antagonist).
These can act as writing prompts too; you can challenge yourself to write scenes where her weakness becomes a strength and vice versa.
5d: How does your protagonist view life
Too dark to grin, or too short to be grumpy? This is essentially the “voice” of your main character — an important element to develop.
As Dinaw Mengestu said, “Don’t think about how your characters sound, but how they see. Watch the world through their eyes — study the extraordinary and the mundane through their particular perspective. Walk around the block with them, stroll the rooms they live in, figure out what objects on the cluttered dining room table they would inevitably stare at the longest, and then learn why.”
5e: How does your protagonist’s attitude differ in front of various sets of people
I call this the Japanese proverb test — if your character passes it, she is worth rooting for. The Japanese proverb says, “The first face, you show to the world. The second face, you show to your close friends and family. The third face, you never show anyone.”
Does your character have these different aspects as well?
Magnus Chase is shy in front of his father, sarcastic with his peers, and misses his mother when alone though he seldom talks about her. Sansa Stark isn’t on good terms with her sister, daydreams when alone, and swoons around the king’s family in the first book of ASoIaF.
(Note: You can refer to Jerry Jenkin’s free guide for more such miscellaneous questions. Also, once you have asked them for your protagonist, ask them for your antagonist and side character. This act would suffice in getting all the information you need about them, too.)
Get weekly lessons on writing, life, relationships, productivity, and more here: On Reality & Fantasy.
The Art of Crafting Your Story by Asking Questions and Developing Characters was originally published in The Writing Cooperative on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.