What If?: Character

The three Big Elements of a novel are Character, Plot, and Setting. In a lot of novels, especially mainstream Earth novels, Setting plays less of a role. In fact, a really common problem in some of the more modern novels is "blank room syndrome," where the reader understands what happened and to whom, but has no idea what the room looked like.

For novels set in any sort of speculative fiction world, however, the setting is more important. Even if you place your story in modern-day Earth, your speculative element changes the Earth of your novel significantly from the Earth the rest of us have to live in.

When you write in a completely different world, the future, or another universe, the setting is even more crucial. World-building is all about establishing your setting.

However, setting, plot, and character are three elements to a successful story, and none of them can stand on its own. You have no story if you have only a setting. No story if you have cool characters who do nothing. No story if you have a plot but nobody to act it out. The "character-driven story" is a myth-- all stories are character-driven. All stories are plot-driven. Character and plot are integral pressures that make your story work. In speculative fiction, Setting adds the third plane in the triangle, the third pressure-point that brings it all together.

So why am I rambling about character and plot? Every Thursday, we focus a little bit on plot, exploring how your setting can aid your plot, how you can weave in one element of your world to give your characters something more to do.

But we haven't really talked much about character. There was a little here and there, but unless you've been character-building outside of these exercises, you probably don't have much (I know I don't).


Today, we're going to apply our "What if?" wondering to the characters. You can use any character-building exercises you like, but the questions below should help you fit your characters into your novel. A person is always a product of where they came from; don't neglect your hero's background when you determine who he is and what he does. Additionally, do the same exercises for your protagonist(s), additional primary characters, antagonist(s), and any love interests in the story.

For the purpose of these exercises, I'm going to refer to the character as "Joe." Obviously, use your own character's name and gender as appropriate.

Every time you answer a question, write down at least one follow-up what if? For example, "What if Joe met his nemesis in a neutral public place?" Suppose my answer is "they would fight." my follow-ups are: "What if Joe wins? What if he loses? What if the bar-owner throws him out? What if he has to pay for the damages? What if he goes to jail for it?" Play with your what ifs? When you're writing, keep questioning the possibilities, pushing the envelope for what could happen, and finding the most fun-to-write answer to your questions.

Keep going with questions about Joe's life until you get really tired of Joe, have such a great idea of what he would do or not do in any situation, or are ready to move onto another character.