What’s Your Problem?

Nah, I’m not trying to pick a fight or anything. But when it comes to writing real characters and creating worlds and situations around them, this is one of the better questions for you to ask of your cast members.

Most memorable stories revolve around how characters develop over the course of the story. There’s even a fancy name for that process.

It’s called the “character arc.”

Readers and viewers are most deeply invested when they can watch a character striving to change. So asking your character(s) “What’s your problem?” can provide a quick and dirty way to discover what the character arc might be.

Another way to do this is ask, “What do you want?”

Every character should want something, or better still, need something. When they have wants and needs, they’ll strive to fulfill them. When they strive to fulfill them, they’re going to encounter obstacles, and when they encounter obstacles we have conflict.

The situations can be easy or complex. The need or problem should be something intrinsically tied to the character. In order for him to solve the problem, or fulfill the need, he’s going to have to change something about himself. Something he didn’t want to change, never thought he could change, and will experience pain while he is changing it.

There are lots of good books telling you how to develop characters. I’d never endeavor to do that; I actually think it might be a weakness for me. But I’ve only seen one so far (and that’s just me, mind you) where the character’s problem (or need/want, I suppose) is tied directly to how the plot unfolds.

That’s the method I learned from Algis Budrys’s book Writing to the Point. I’ve written about that recently. Well, the idea is, the character (the main character, the protagonist) will try to solve the problem he has, and that’s how the character arc is tied directly to the plot events. Nice, yeah? I liked that.

So you can have problems which are event-driven, like there’s a time bomb in the basement of the local elementary school and the protagonist is the only one who can stop it from going off, and have something event-driven. Or you can have a problem like, the protagonist is too shy to ask out the checkout counter girl at the local general store and the big hoedown is coming up, and get something a bit more character-driven.

The greater the want/need/problem, the more the character must strive to reach it, and the more s/he must change to attain it.

And voila! – story.

Hope you had a great weekend. I celebrated my 17th anniversary this Saturday, and I have to confess, this one’s as exciting as the first.

See you all next time!


2 thoughts on “What’s Your Problem?

  1. Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe 17! It still often feels like the 1st. 🙂

    It does, doesn’t it? Wonderful to be in this with you. 🙂

    I think you’re going to get a lot of mileage out of this book. It seems to really be speaking to your writerly heart. 🙂

    I liked it a lot, that’s for sure. I think the ease of getting something off the ground appeals to me right now, struggling so hard to get writing on something, anything.



  2. I like this approach – asking your character a question. I would think this could be extended even to questions like, what do you like for breakfast or what is your favorite color. But asking ‘what is your problem?’ well, as you said that is pretty fundamental to the story. Enjoyed your post.

    Well, thanks, LuAnne! I’m glad you stopped by. I’m starting to learn, slowly, like a mule, that people read stories for what happens to the characters, not what happens. As a genre writer, I need to focus more on characters and making them real. If the story requirements are a character, in a context, with a problem…well, I need to get this happening. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s