Sunday 11 August 2019

Quick Character Quiz - Kelly McCaughrain

This is a quick test to see how credible your character arc is. The whole book hangs off that skeleton and I often find when I’m having problems, going back to this provides the answer. It’s based on story theory as outlined by KM Weiland in her brilliant podcasts and I use it all the time.

Basically, all you have to do is answer these six fundamental questions about your characters. We know all this subconsciously but I find putting it into words can clarify things or highlight where you’re missing something. If you can't sum up the answers in a short sentence, or two at the most, then maybe you have work to do. 

The answers will be more complex for the main characters but really all the characters should have answers for numbers 1, 2 and 6 at least. 

You can also use this in writing workshops to help people flesh out their ideas.

So here goes:

1. What do they want? – this is the external goal they’re aiming for, eg to win the race, to get the girl, to defeat the monster, to find the buried treasure etc.

2. What do they need? – this is an internal transformation that they’re probably not even aware that they need, e.g. love, to learn to ask for help, to be themselves, to be less arrogant, to learn to trust someone, to stand up for what’s right, to see their own or someone else’s worth etc

3. What is the lie they believe? – this is the reason they have to be transformed. E.g. they believe they are worthless, powerless, guilty of something, unlovable, that one person can’t make a difference, that boys don’t cry, that winning/money/popularity is all that matters, that people can’t be trusted etc.

4. What is their ghost? – this is something that happened in their past and it’s the reason they believe the lie. E.g. someone betrayed them and now they believe that people can’t be trusted, or their parents rejected them and now they feel no one could ever love them, their dad yelled at them for crying and now they think boys shouldn’t show emotion, etc. It doesn’t have to be a big thing; it could be as small as a passing comment or as big as a death in the family.

5. What flaw results from their lie? – as a result of their lie they will behave in a certain way, e.g. if they believe people are not trustworthy, they may be hostile and keep people at a distance. If they believe they aren’t worthy of love they may be very shy and try to hide. If they believe winning is everything, they may be arrogant and competitive.


6. What truth will they discover? – this is the thing they needed all along and it’s the opposite of their lie, and finding it will fix their flaw, transforming forever their behaviour and their life. E.g. they discover that there’s more to life than money/popularity, or that they are capable of making a difference/being brave etc. Once they know this truth, it will help them to either achieve their original goal (their ‘want’) or see that they don’t need it after all. How they discover this truth is basically the plot of your novel.


Doing this for all your characters can reveal common themes and motifs that can enhance the whole story. 

Try it, you’ll be amazed what you’ll discover. 

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the YA novel Flying Tips for Flightless Birds

She blogs about Writing, Gardening and VW Campervanning at 



A. Colleen Jones said...

These are brilliant questions! I must check out that podcast. Also, Story Genuis by Lisa Cron talks about the "misbelief" or lie that each character has. We all have them, and it's quite fascinating to uncover them.

Chris Vick said...

This is really good, definitely food for thought! A variation on these themes is: who are they, and who do they THINK they are (ie. how they portray themselves) and how can you show the difference?

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Thanks Colleen and Chris, those are useful! I'll check out the podcast.