We’re continuing our monthly installment series on creating amazing characters using Orson Scott Card’s seminal book, Elements of Fiction Writing: Characters & Viewpoint. This month, we cover the three elements every character needs, and why you must deliver them.
Card discusses the three questions readers ask, ones for which you’d better have a superb answer. They are:
1. So what?
When a reader comes across a character in a situation in your story, they ask: "Why should I care about this person? Why is this important?" You need to convince them it’s important to keep them reading. Because if you don’t, Card says they will go downstairs and watch TV.
2. Oh, yeah?
This question covers inherent disbelief when someone reads something. While readers are prone to suspend disbelief when reading, they can still smell when something’s not right. You don’t want your reader to say "I don’t believe anyone would do that" or "That’s not how things work."
You never want your reader suddenly to say "What’s happening?" without giving them reassurance that all will be explained. You don’t want readers stumbling and wondering who’s talking or what’s going on. They’ll close your book, and it’s doubtful they’ll pick it back up.
What this means for you
It’s your job as the storyteller to know when a reader is about to say, "So what?" and to give them a reason to care. And whenever a doubt creeps in and they’re mumbling "Oh, yeah?" you’ll give them the clue they need or a logical reason to keep them believing. Finally, on those necessary occasions when you need to keep something from your readers, you won’t leave them wondering what’s going on. You’ll either drop a clue or make sure they understand the question that’s being asked right then in your story. Readers need to know you purposefully left them in the dark so they stay with you.
Short stories don’t have as many characters to worry about, but novels have a cast that readers will unconsciously ask the above three questions. You as the storyteller must answer each of the questions for every major character in your tale. Present your readers with belief, emotional involvement, and clarity, and they’ll stick with you.
How to write for these three questions
Orson Scott Card wrote, "You are the first audience." If you don’t get excited about your characters and what they’re doing, you can’t expect your readers to. If you don’t care deeply about each character, it will come through clearly enough in your writing, and your readers won’t care either.
But finding a story and characters that feel right—who are important enough to make you want to tell their story—is like discovering gold. At that point, you’re no longer writing for yourself. You’re writing for the world to understand what you see, think, and feel.
So if your fingers aren’t tingling and itching to get to pen and paper or keyboard, you need to find another character, or make your current character more interesting. But how do you do that?
Card says you should interrogate your characters. Here are the questions you start with:
- Why would he do such a thing?
- What made him do it?
- If he does it, what will happen as a result?
These questions focus on cause and result. If you read Orson Scott Card’s book, he has a wonderful example of how this works as you flesh out a story. You continue to ask the questions "Why?", "What happens?", and "What can go wrong?"
Don’t stop with the first superficial answers you find. Continue asking "Why?" and "What happens?" while throwing in "What can go wrong?" questions to keep things interesting. After you’ve drilled down to something that’s elemental, you’ll know when you’ve hit the mother lode.
Then you throw in a twist. Perhaps you assumed your character was a responsible individual, but what if that’s not true? Take your assumptions and give them a twist for good measure to make for more interesting characters.
Card says it’s important to keep asking the questions because your first several answers will most likely be clichés. Turn the spotlight on each of your ideas and characters to get to the essential stuff at their core. Don’t settle for clichés; your story will be stronger and deeper because you kept "asking questions until you came up with something really good."
Finally, Card says you may find yourself in the position where you have a story idea, but no clue about characters. He recommends asking "Who suffers most in this situation?" Then interrogate your characters to find the answer. The one who has the most to lose or who will almost die will be your main character.
Before you go, let us know in the comments below what you think so far of our series on characters. There’s more to come! In the meantime, let’s get a great discussion going about your tricks and techniques for creating amazing characters.
NOTE: We also recently put together The Essential Reading List: Historical Fiction.