The Five Crucial Questions That Writers Must Ask Themselves (And The One To Avoid!)

While I was studying history, a lecturer once quoted Carl Jung and said: “To ask the right question is already half the solution to the problem.” I did not appreciative the sagacity of those words back then (I was only 21, after-all). But looking back, I can safely say that he and Jung before him hit the nail on the head; not just in terms of my dissertation exercise, but for my career and novel as well. (As it turns out there are five crucial questions that writers must ask themselves.)

It can be hard to know what the right questions to ask are; especially, when starting out and not knowing where to turn. Dear Lord, I asked many a-wrong question for sure at the beginning. But, then again, sometimes it takes asking a plethora of wrong questions to eventually ask the right one(s).

So, putting what I have learned into practice, here are the five crucial questions that writers should ask themselves, as well as the one the question that is best avoided.

Question 1 – What Will The Main Character Be Like And What Are His/Her Ambitions?

The first of the five crucial questions that writers must ask themselves is the most important of them all. The main character is the reason for the novel: his/her personality, ambitions, and decisions (mistakes) will be the driving force of the story.

Bottom line: the central protagonist is the hinge on which the novel rests. He/she will engage its readers, or bore them.

One of the five crucial questions that writers must ask themselves is what will main character like. Roland Deschain, for example, wants to reach the Tower at all costs.
In Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower saga, Roland Deschain is the main character. This anti-hero’s goal is to reach the tower at all costs, as depicted in this piece of fan art.

Click here for blog posts Part I & Part II on how to create an engaging main character. (Plus subscribe for a further, exclusive blog post about anti-heroes.)

Question 2 – How Many Secondary Characters Will There Be In The Novel?

The second of the five crucial questions that writers must ask themselves centres around secondary characters. It is rare for a story to only have one character. (There are exceptions, of course; for example, the films All Is Lost and Locke, starring Robert Redfort and Tom Hardy, respectively. But these are the exceptions, not the rule.)

In most stories, and particularly in epic fantasy series, there will be more than one character. Invariably, these will be secondary characters as they play second fiddle to the main character throughout the narrative. A writer must himself/herself how many secondary characters he/she wants to have.

A writer must also take note that every secondary character is not just there for the sake of the central protagonist. Every secondary character must have a personality and ambitions of their own, as they must do something to push the story forward. If a secondary character does not push the story forward, there is simply no reason for him/her to be there, and he/she should be cut from the novel.

Click here for blog posts Part I & Part II on how to create a compelling secondary character.

Question 3 – What Will The Villain/Antagonist Be Like?

The third of the five crucial question that writers must ask themselves is about the villain/antagonist. Every hero needs a villain, and every protagonist needs an antagonist. But what will the villain/antagonist be like, personality-wise? What are his/her ambitions? Why has he/she decided to attack the main character?

Another of the five crucial questions that writers must ask themselves is what will the antagonist/villain be like. The Joker is a great example of a villain who is charismatic and has a goal.

When one thinks of memorable antagonists/villains, Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance in The Dark Knight always springs to mind.

Writers should think very carefully on these questions. A villain/antagonist makes a story just as much as the main character, if not more; after-all, the greatest villains are remembered more fondly than the hero/protagonist.

(Oh, and a villain/antagonist rarely acts alone. Therefore, the new writer will need to give him/her sidekicks or advisors as well.)

To read about how to create a memorable villain/antagonist, click here and here.

Question 4 – What Should The Style Of The Prose Be?

The prose is the body of the text: the sentences and the paragraphs. Generally speaking, the writer will choose to write in one of the following styles:

  1. The First Person;
  2. The Third Person Omniscient;
  3. The Third Person Limited.

The style that the new writer chooses is entirely up to him/her. There is no right or wrong style, and each of these has its advantages and disadvantages. The writer just has to be consistent with the style, otherwise the writer will confuse the reader.

To read about how to choose the right POV for your story, click here.

Question 5 – Who Is The Target Audience?

The fifth of five of the crucial questions that writers must ask themselves is one that is often overlooked in the early writing stages. From the outset, writers should decide who their readership will be. If they do not do this, they will have to make this decision at a later stage when it may be harder (emotionally) to make the necessary amendments. So, it is best to decide at the earliest point.

It is entirely up to writers to choose their target audience. The novel can for children, teenage girls, adults in their thirties and forties, or senior citizens, etc… It does not matter. The reason writers must know their target audience is so that they can tailor their language and themes for their audience.

But (for heaven’s sake) do not try and go for a ‘catch all’ approach! That makes for a muddled story and a worst of all worlds narrative.

To read about how to target an audience, click here and here.

The Question To Avoid – What Is The Plot Of My Novel Going To Be?

No, no, no and NO! This is the most obvious question for writers to ask themselves and it is absolutely, completely and totally the wrong one. This is the question that will lead a writer to crash, full-speed, into a (figurative) brick wall.

If writers persist with asking this question, they will be tearing their hair out and breaking down with migraines within a month. In most novels (particularly epic fantasy ones) the plot can be too large to deal with at first and the more writers try to simplify it, the more they will crash into their mental brick wall.

A novel’s plot can be equated to a vast terrain. However, one can gain a view of the terrain (and the plot) from the top of a tower.

The question of plot is not the key to a solid piece of work, as my professor would have told me a decade ago. In short, there are better questions to ask. The five above-mentioned questions may seem smaller than the over-arching one of the plot. But writers must view these ‘smaller questions’ as building blocks. One at a time, they will give them the elevation they need to see the whole storyline before them, as if it were a landscape, from the top of their mental tower.

Questions For The Reader

I hope you have found this blog piece useful and that it helps to make the writing journey more enjoyable for you. If you are an aspiring or a published author, it would be great to find out if you:

  1. Agree with these questions?
  2. Asked yourself these questions when you started writing?
  3. Think I have missed out any other crucial questions that you asked yourself?

Please leave your answers in the comments below and I will do my best to get back to you in good time.


PS: For further writing tips and the exclusive blog piece on anti-heroes, please fill in the form below.

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