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6 November 2014 ·

Dialogue with your Protagonist: Stop floundering and get down to the bones of your story

A lot of people are doing NaNoWriMo this month (for those who don’t know it, the aim is to write 50,000 words of a novel in November) so if anyone’s feeling a bit stuck, I thought I’d share a variation of a technique I used in a masterclass at CYA in July.
Now that I’ve discovered it, I intend to use frequently during the progress of a manuscript, but I think it’s useful early on – when you’ve thought about your characters quite a lot already, and you thought you knew the shape of the story, but now that you’re writing it, nothing’s quite as sharp and clear as you thought it was.
It can be challenging, but it works well – and remember, nobody’s watching or judging.
So: get a paper and pencil, or a sharpie, and just ask your protagonist, ‘What do you most want?’
But the trick is: you write the question out with your dominant hand, and answer with your non dominant hand – that’s why a nice fat sharpie is good. Don’t think about the answer, just let it come, misshaped letters and all. I’ve only used it for child characters so far, but I think it’s also valid for adult protagonists, because most of our deepest wants and fears come from the child within us. 
If your character doesn’t know what they want, ask what they’re most afraid of. Ask why. Ask whatever you think a probing counsellor might ask them. And most importantly, don’t judge their answers. You might be surprised at what comes – I usually am.
And whether you use all that you’ve discovered or not, you’ll certainly end up with a stronger feeling of who your character is. Just don’t forget that you’re still the boss, so you may not choose to give your character exactly what they think they want. But it may give you a clearer idea of what they need to experience, and therefore, where you want your story to go.


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Wendy Orr is a Canadian-born Australian writer. Her books for children and adults have been published in 27 countries and won awards around the world. Nim’s Island and Nim at Sea have also become feature films, starring Jodie Foster and Abigail Breslin (Nim’s Island) and Bindi Irwin (Return to Nim’s Island.) Her latest book is Dragonfly Song, a novel in free verse and prose of an outcast girl who becomes a bull-leaper in Bronze Age Crete. Read full bio