Character Development —Ask the What If? Questions
I’m starting a new series, and part of what’s involved is defining the characters. I know something happened to my Main Character (MC) in his past that affects his actions now. But how? Is he arrogant? Deceitful? Ashamed? To find out, I took part in an exercise from The Anatomy of Story by John Truby—Look for what’s possible, also known as asking the What If? questions.
Look for What’s Possible
What is promised by the idea of the premise of your book? One way author John Truby suggests is asking the “What If?” questions. Doing so defines what is allowed in the story world; helps you explore your mind; and fleshes out details, making your world more compelling to readers.
He suggests brainstorming ideas, leaving judgment for later.
What makes your character tick?
I know my character, Rory Harper, has an extraordinary sense of smell that he trades on for a living. I know something happened when he was a child that caused a tragedy, something connected to his talent. With those two bits of information I asked the What If? questions.
- What if he resents his talent but clings to it because then he has no excuse for what happened?
- What if he’s afraid to embrace the full scope of his talent?
- Is he afraid the past will repeat?
- What if his failure was a fluke or the disaster had nothing to do with his talent and everything to do with him? (aka, he’s a failure)
- What if he gives himself permission to like, even love, his abilities?
- Would the disaster have happened anyway, with or without his talent-driven warning?
- What if he’s so dependent on the resentment he feels for his talent that he’ll never overcome his feelings?
- What if he’s forever stuck where he is? It’s a comfortable rut, but a rut nevertheless.
- What if he can never forgive himself?
- If he’s forced to do the thing he least wants to do (use his talent to help others when it failed him in the past), will it allow him to grow? (character arc)
- What if his participation in helping others with his talent only makes things worse?
Asking What If? Deepens Your Understanding of Your Character
By asking these questions, I added another layer to Rory’s character and understand him better. The disaster in his past and how he assimilates it makes him both resent his talent and have an obsessive need to be perfect with its use. (A perfect talet eliminates past mistakes). Overcoming these thoughts throughout the story will force him to face the past, realize it should not define him, and send him toward a better life.
I encourage you to ask the What If? questions about your character. Let his problems occur organically, and you’ll develop a richer, more layered character with which your readers will identify.
Related article: The Five Whys
On a sidenote: Happy Birthday to my wonderful husband of thirty-six years (wow!). If not for you, I never would have written Word One.