Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda…

Okay, let’s talk characterization. Or, more specifically, hero-ization.

At any given moment, what does your hero do? You’ve opened a scene file, you’re stuck her in a setting, with a few other characters around, and you’ve presented her–via story–with a choice. She’s facing a path with two or three forks in it. Which way does she go?

If you’re lucky, she tells you herself. She looks down that road, sees that one route offers her exactly what she wants (or what she thinks she wants), and she takes off. Your only job is to follow along, get it all down, then take a look later–during revision–to see if she really had a clue about what was best for your story. Or whether she didn’t but has taught you something you needed to know anyway.

What do you do, though, if she stops at the divergent ways, studies the options, then turns back to you and shrugs with that “Huh?” expression you hate so much. FYI, it’ll look a lot like the raccoons who wander around my house (or into it) and wonder why I’m yelling at them.

What do you do if your hero expects you, at the moment, to make a decision?

Try going back to these questions:

  • What could she do?
  • What should she do?
  • What would she do?

Could pretty much reflects the story you’re telling (so far) and the parameters set by the world you’re reflecting or creating. My hero cannot, in 1913, jump into a space shuttle and take off into the stratosphere. Okay, I guess she could, but this is (so far) realistic historical fiction I’m writing. She also cannot get a job without her parents permission.

Or can she? This is the power of could.  You don’t actually want your hero to always be doing something that’s easy for her, that you know she could, without even having to work for it. You want her, a lot of the times, to do the things that–at first–seem impossible, but that, with a bit of creativity, imagination, manipulation, or direct confrontation–she can make happen. In other words, what would my hero have to do so that she could get that job? 

Should is just fun. In real life, I’m not a big fan of should–loaded as it usually is with way too much social judgment and way too much power to make me worry and fret. In writing, though…oh, yeah. Because a should for your hero is pretty much an invitation to conflict. (Okay, maybe it’s that for us, too, but there’s the whole manners thing…) So when you ask what your hero should do, make sure you’re asking it from the perspectives of all the characters around her. What does she want to do, but only to make them all happy? And then dig deep and find out what she can do that goes against those shoulds–that make life harder for everybody else and for her, as well.

Would is the hardest. Because this one’s all about how well you know your hero. This is where you (I think!) strip away all the things around her, even if they’ve helped make her who she is, and concentrate on who she is, in and of herself. What are her goals? What are her strengths and weaknesses? Does she move slowly toward what she wants or explosively? Is she likely to succeed or trip herself up? When she’s presented with a choice, which is she–with detail of her personality that you can learn–most likely to choose. Will my hero go along with what her parents wants, will she compromise, or will she out-and-out lie to go her own way.

Yep. You guessed it. That’s what I’m thinking about today.

Because it’s most likely when you don’t know the answer to these questions, or your version anyway, that your hero is going to turn and greet you with that shrug. And this is the time when you may need to step away from the writing, even from the plotting, and spend some more time getting acquainted with this person.

This person who called you to write the story in the first place.

What do you still need to learn about your hero?


  1. Jeanie W says:

    Ooh, thanks! This is a really helpful approach. 🙂

    I think the main reason I want to switch POV characters in my WIP, is because the answers to the “would” questions for my original protag aren’t as interesting to me as they are for the new ones (2 of them, alternating by chapter).


    • beckylevine says:

      That seems like a good reason to me! I actually had the thought cross my mind that I could do two povs in my WIP…At this point, though, I think that thought is just popping up cause I don’t KNOW one of my characters enough yet! 🙂


  2. claudine says:

    I’m so glad I get these updates in my email inbox, because I don’t always make the time to visit my fave blogs online and I would have hated to miss this!
    Great post! And, so much what I need to hear (as you know.)
    I especially love the “shoulda” setting up for conflict.


    • beckylevine says:

      I’m glad you get them, too! Yeah–“shoulda” always bugs ME, so no reason it wouldn’t bug our characters, too!


  3. K.M. Weiland says:

    The “what if” question is the most powerful and most exciting question in fiction. Once you start asking that question, the possibilities are endless! Great post.


    • beckylevine says:

      Sometimes, those possibilities feel REALLY endless–almost overwhelming. 🙂 No, once any answers start flowing, I feel better–even if I don’t know which to pick yet.


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