Four Questions to Keep Asking About Your Characters by Charlie Jane Anders

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I mentioned previously that I’ve been reading Charlie Jane Anders’ craft book Never Say You Can’t Survive that dropped recently. I’m finding her insight refreshingly accessible and compassionate. She believes in her characters, and she especially believes in their feelings and how those feelings drive their decisions and move the plot forward.

My expertise is mostly in memoir and poetry, but I like to read about how all kinds of authors make a book happen, whether they’re writing about a mother with unrecognized mental illness (hello!), a murder mystery set in Paris during the Belle Epoch, or mushroom-shaped aliens from the planet Gorb who just want to be friends with humans–or so it seems.

Whatever we write, we face similar challenge in the creative process: creating a believable world, fleshing out characters into fully complex human beings, how to ground scenes in setting, how to structure a new work, etc. etc. To help with what drives our characters and the decisions they make (and in memoir even the writer is a character on the page), Anders suggests we constantly ask these four questions:

  1. How do they feel about their situation?
  2. What do they do about that feeling?
  3. What result does their action have?
  4. How do they feel about this new situation?

Usually, I think in terms of motivation or what a character has learned so far in the story as a way of clarifying a decision they make. But I find Anders’ questions to be a way of streamlining that thinking. We all have feelings. We all must choose how to react to them, or respond, or not respond at all. It’s not difficult to put ourselves in the minds of characters if we simply concentrate on feelings–on letting their emotional energy drive the action.

What do you think? Do you let a character’s emotional development drive the plot of your story, or do you piece together your plot and let that feed the feelings of your characters? There are many ways to write a book. I feel as if I could learn from them all.

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Writer and Editor. Pianist and singer. Feminist and proponent of Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. I don't get it either. I wish I could have dinner with Marie Curie.

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