When your young writers are stuck, or want to know how to improve their story, or why it’s not working or why the plot is unbelievable, or why the dialogue is clunky, and they look at you like
And you’re like
Don’t worry. The answer is this:
Doesn’t matter what the problem, 99% of the time the answer is character. Character is everything.
When they think their plot isn’t working, the answer is character. Plot is character. Things only happen in a story because a character wants something or fears something or does something. That’s all plot is. It all stems from character. So if the plot isn’t working or you don’t know what happens next, it’s because you don’t know your character well enough.
If the dialogue isn’t working, the answer is character. Characters have distinctive voices of their own and if the dialogue isn’t working, it’s because you can’t hear your character well enough.
If the story feels flat and won’t come to life, the answer is character. Characters live in particular worlds and if you can’t bring vivid detail into the writing, it’s because you can’t see your character’s world well enough.
So a really good trick when someone’s stuck with a story, or just wants to brainstorm ideas for a new story, is to use a character questionnaire.
This is just a list of questions that you ask your character. They may not appear to have anything to do with the story initially but they can end up being integral to the plot. Remember that JK Rowling knew LOADS more about her characters than ever ended up in the books. A writer has to know their characters inside out, and then choose what to put on the page.
Interrogating your characters can be quite addictive and there are loads of character questionnaires and interviews online that you can use. Some kids love creating characters, I have one girl who keeps whole notebooks about her characters, with drawings and images and notes, and does online personality tests for them. Others will come at the plot from a different angle, but I think if you’re having a problem with your writing, examining your characters is often a good way to tackle it. It’s always the first thing I do when I’m stuck and I find it really good for generating new ideas.
So here’s a simple Character Questionnaire (click to download) you can print out and give to your writers. And it works for all characters, not just your main character/protagonist. Every character can have a backstory and a personality.
I always keep a stack of copies handy for anyone starting a new piece or stuck on an old one. Not all the questions will apply to their character, depending on genre, but that’s OK. And they shouldn’t spend too long agonising over the answers, it’s just for brainstorming purposes and they can always leave answers out or come back to them.
Hope it’s helpful!