Writing Tip: Your Character’s Central Question

The script doctor Michael Hague has pointed out that for every successful motion picture, there is a central question that revolves around the protagonist: “Who are you?”  After studying this insight for twenty years, I’m convinced that Michael is right. You usually (because there are always exceptions) can’t write a powerful story of character without addressing this issue.

In other words, your protagonist often has people around him who define him.  Let’s take a romance story.  Perhaps your protagonist is young, from the “wrong side of the tracks.”  He’s poor white trash. His dad is a convicted felon who strips copper pipes out of houses that are in foreclosure and then sells the copper for recycling. Thus he’ll do a hundred thousand dollars in damage to a home in an effort to steal two hundred bucks. Our young protagonist rides a motorcycle and has biker friends. He’s been arrested for taking meth. But he wants more out of life. He’s determined to go to college, to make something of himself, and there on his first day he meets the girl of his dreams.

Now, who is he?  Is he the brilliant young doctor that he imagines that he could be, or is he the pond scum that past evidence shows him to be? Well, that’s what the story is about.

Imagine that he falls in love with a beautiful young pre-med student.  Her father knows all about the boy’s dad. After all, the guy’s face is all over the newspapers. In fact, they’ve had run-ins since high school. The boy’s family are all losers.

So the story revolves really around the evidence for what your protagonist is.  Is he a drug-using biker?  Is he from a creepy background?  Many would agree that he is. There is plenty of evidence to support those ideas.

In fact, it is best if even your protagonist doesn’t know who he is . . . yet. He’s in motion, trying to move from one definition, “Creepy druggie,” to a higher status, “worthy young doctor.”

Now, for a story to occur, there should be pressure on our hero to choose both lifestyles.  Perhaps his father needs some help this weekend, “with a big job.” There’s a mansion up on foreclosure. Maybe the hero loses his job as a shipping clerk, and can’t pay for school, so he needs the money that he’d make by stealing copper. Maybe medical school turns out to be harder than our protagonist thought.  Maybe there’s another love interest, a messed-up chick who is trying to con him into marriage by pretending to be pregnant with his best friend’s baby.

In short, just about everyone who knows him—dad, mom, enemies—all reinforce the idea that our “hero” has no future. Perhaps no one believes in this boy but himself, and he only half believes it. Even the girl who is falling in love with him doesn’t know who he is.

In such a story, there should be a lot of “hecklers,” people whose job it is to define our protagonist in a negative light.  Certainly his love interest’s father should be in that group, and her old boyfriend will need to get his henchmen on the football team to come kick the crud out of our protagonist.

In fact, at some point, our hero will even need to struggle with self-identity.  Maybe he’ll take some meth again.  Maybe he’ll hop on his bike, borrow a gun, and consider robbing a Pizza Hut in order to get the money he needs to stay in school.  In short, he’ll have a crisis of some sort.

At the same time, we as the audience should also see evidence that this young man has potential. He did great in chemistry in high school (possibly because he was studying so hard, trying to learn how to make meth?).  We might see his kindness, his compassion.  We may see him studying at night, straddling his motorbike out in the garage while he reads a textbook.

Ultimately, the protagonist must decide who he will become.

That’s what stories of character are about—people making that decision to either die or to evolve, to become better despite their history, despite the pressures to do otherwise.

If your story doesn’t have that element in it, the chances are good that it is lacking.

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”

—Anne Frank


At Apex-Writers we have Will Wight speaking to us tonight at 7:00pm MST, Nov. 17, 2020.

We also have Tracy Hickman on Nov. 21;

Julie Czerneda on Nov. 24;

Beth Meacham on Dec. 1; and

Stacy Demanski on Dec. 5.

Sign up to join us.

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