We’ve all had those moments when we’ve had to come to terms with the fact that the character we envision in our heads isn’t quite the person staring back at us from the page. Their voice, their mannerisms, their decisions, aren’t quite what we imagined in our heads. Maybe your gallant heroine came out of your first draft with rather darker motivations than you intended, or there’s something about your love-interest’s behavior that, for no reason you can quite put your finger on, really makes you want to drop-kick the guy right out of your story.
Here’s an unexpected problem I stumbled across in editing my WIP—my main character sounded younger, more naïve, and, frankly, whinier than I ever meant for him to come across. Luckily, it wasn’t hard to identify why.
The dude asked too many questions.
Do you ever get irritated when someone treats what should’ve been a casual conversation as an opportunity to straight-up interrogate you? Since when did small talk come with a side order of psychoanalysis? Have you ever been trying to concentrate on something, only to have someone standing at your side asking you question after question after question, until your nerves are rattled? (Well?? Have you???)
My character spent much of the opening chapters of my WIP asking questions about the world around him. While a lot of the information imparted to my character during these exchanges is essential to moving the plot forward, there’s no reason this grown adult needs to sound like a precocious four year old ceaselessly demanding to know “Why?”
If your character is constantly asking questions, they can come off as younger, more naïve, and — frankly– more annoying than you intend. Find a more engaging way to impart crucial plot information than bland interrogations between characters.
For instance, in a single scene, I tallied up the number of questions my character asked:
- “What is this thing? Why won’t it come off?”
- “What’re you doing?”
- “Why d’you really want it?”
- “And you were … What, stealing it back?”
- “He killed someone for this? … Why hire you to go after him? Why not send in police?”
- “What are we s’posed to do?”
- “Why d’you sound surprised?”
- “What is this place?”
IN CASE YOU’RE WONDERING, YES, THAT IS A LOT OF QUESTIONS FOR ONE PERSON TO ASK IN A SINGLE SCENE. And this isn’t even all of them.
So, in an exercise below, I’ve taken a few of these questions and tried to find new ways for my character to express his confusion or curiosity. I’m hoping to transform my MC from a too-young, naïve, whining voice to something more reminiscent of the sarcastic, done-with-this-nonsense attitude I more closely envision for him. Below, I’ve listed the Original Question, my tentative New Response, and my Author’s Notes on the change-up.
Charley plucked at the bracelet, pulled, but it wouldn’t budge an inch. “What is this thing? Why won’t it come off?”
Charley plucked at the bracelet, pulled, but it wouldn’t budge an inch. “If you have any interest in explaining why this piece of jewelry just climbed up my arm of its own volition and ripped my skin into ribbons, I have to say, I’m listening.”
Author’s Note: I’m not convinced the Original Question isn’t better, just in its simplicity, but this demonstrates how I can take a question and turn into a funnier, sarcastic statement that will still trigger the information I need my character to receive.
(Character reveals to MC that they’ve been hired to kill someone accused of murdering a Councilmember.) “Why hire you to go after him? Why not send in police?”
“Huh,” said Charley. “Seems fair. ‘Course, most people would’ve called the cops and had him arrested but, sure, if you want to go all Hammurabi’s eye for an eye, that’s your prerogative — hey, unrelated, but how the hell do I get out of here?”
Author’s Note: Again, I was able to inject more sarcasm and personality into his response.
“Where am I?”
“So … physically … I’m …?”
Author’s Note: That last one is still a question, but the language style is a little more personal to my character than a bland question anyone might ask.
It might seem a simple task, but I really do like my results. My character is more sarcastic now, has a bit stronger agency, and isn’t just peppering the other characters with an endless litany of questions.
Try this in your own writing! See if you can take your characters’ questions and turn them into definitive statements. Real, dynamic dialogue is key to breathing life into your characters—don’t miss the chance at creating engaging banter just because you’re focused on imparting some nugget of information to the reader!
Happy writing. 🙂