Developing Your Character’s Inner Struggle

Often when I’m developing a character or a story, I get lost in my own head with all the possibilities available to me, and I need something to anchor me and narrow my choices in a simple, direct, and progressive way. To help me think through a character’s inner struggle, I developed this 10-point questionnaire to help define their inner journey.

These questions are based on ideas I gleaned from the work of James Scott Bell, particularly “Super Structure,” and “Write Your Novel From The Middle.” He uses a classic three-act structure modeled on the Hero’s Journey, where the main character begins in a comfort zone where, despite their internal struggles, they have achieved a certain equilibrium that is precariously successful. When presented with some form of external challenge, this comfort zone is threatened and the main character has to start making choices.

Lack/Wants/Needs Questionnaire

  1. Lack: What about the character’s life is lacking?
  2. Want: What does the character want to fill what they lack?
  3. Maintenance: How do they maintain their comfort zone?
  4. Failure: How do their attempts at maintenance fail?
  5. Fear: What do they fear will happen if their comfort zone collapses?
  6. Disturbance: What will happen to foreshadow the dissolution of their comfort zone?
  7. Collapse: How will their comfort zone collapse?
  8. Need: What do they actually need to satisfy their lack?
  9. Push: What will push them toward realizing what they need?
  10. Path: What must they do to get what they need?

I’m not a huge fan of the Hero’s Journey. It’s way over-used as a model for storytelling and tends to produce a very narrow range of results. There was a while in the 1990s when every movie that came out was meticulously and unimaginatively based on it. You could show me the first ten minutes of a movie and I could pretty much predict exactly what was going to happen in the rest of the story. It does have some useful ideas buried in it. The “Call to Adventure” is a great way to get a story up and running efficiently, but it requires the writer to have worked out a few things in advance.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the Hero’s Journey, “The Writer’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler is a great distillation. And, if you want to find out about a wonderful alternative to this rather creaky form of storytelling, give Gail Carriger’s excellent “The Heroine’s Journey” a read.

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