5 Awkward Questions to Ask Your Protagonist


I love asking questions. Awkward, weird, wonderful questions that get to the heart of people. It’s one of my favorite parts of getting to know someone. And while the following questions are perhaps a little too personal for general consumption, they are great for grilling protagonists (and other characters) and making them ‘fess up their guts. The thing to remember is that it’s not only what the character answers, but how they answer. A refusal to answer can be equally revealing. The trick is not letting the protagonist off the hook with a one or two word answer–hence, I’ve added bullet points after each question giving additional probes. Get ready to have some character fun!

1.) Would they wear the same clothes two days in a row? More than two days? Do they believe in the ‘smell test’ for clothing?

  • Can reveal their perspective on cleanliness
  • Can reveal their socioeconomic class
  • Can reveal how good their sense of smell is
  • Can reveal how conscious they are of how others view them
  • Can reveal their perspective on themselves
  • Can reveal general standards for the culture

2.) A bird poops on them. How do they handle it?

  • Can reveal their view of animals
  • Can reveal how they handle negative surprises
  • Can reveal their general outlook on life – positive or negative
  • Can reveal how prepared they are for messes

3.) Unexpected pregnancy–how do they deal with it? How would they react if they found out they were pregnant, or that their spouse/significant other was pregnant?

  • Can reveal their relationship status
  • Can reveal their attitude towards family and children
  • Can reveal their level of preparedness
  • Can reveal their religious background
  • Can reveal the sexual/courtship rituals of the culture

4.) What are they addicted to? What is the one thing they could never give up?

  • Can reveal their vices – think about ordinary, everyday issues
  • Can open up possibilities for areas of weakness
  • Can open up discussion about how they handle those vices. Are they ashamed? Proud?
  • Can diversify their characterization with negative traits

5.) Who or what would they die for? Why? If no one/nothing, why not?

  • Can reveal their perspective on death/the afterlife
  • Opens up philosophy and religious aspects
  • Reveals who/what they value
  • Can reveal their personality, in terms of pragmatism, martyrdom, selfishness, etc

Feel free to answer any questions from your character’s POV in the comments–or add your own questions!

Frank, the Beagle of Unexpected Plot Twists

((I’m an intuitive thinker. This means that I am perpetually getting crazy insights, and then having to sort them out with my brain–and Scripture–to see if they’re actually possible and make rational sense. Today, welcome to that world, as it’s where I have been living lately. You have been warned)).


Frank the Intuitive Plot Twist Beagle takes up residence in a corner of the room. He is wearing a superhero cape. Completely adorable–and entirely devious.

Me: who invited you in here?

Frank: it’s hard to get rid of me. After all, I am a key part of your brain.

Me: true.

Frank: do you have food?

Me: no. I usually forget to eat when I’m working.

Frank starts whining.

Me: no. Not having that right now. I just ate two hours ago. I need to write now. I have one hour set aside before I have to grade homework.

Frank: I could eat the homework.

Me: no!

Frank whuffles and sits down.

Frank: are you sure she’s supposed to end up with that guy?

Me: yes! Sure. Definitely. I have it charted out in my outline. It’s a very pretty outline. And he’ll grow. See? Growth charted on outline. I got this.

Frank: if you’re sure…

Me: I am.

I start writing. Frank is whistling, which he doesn’t seem to realize is impossible for a beagle. Finally, I look up.

Me: why don’t you think she ends up with him?

Frank: just wondering. He’s kind of a loser.

Me: and then he’ll grow and change. That’s called character development.

Frank: if you say so.

I sigh.

Me: she can’t up with the other guy. He’s a creep!

Frank: or she just thinks he’s a creep.

Me: he’s got a terrible past.

Frank: and good intentions.

Me: and really bad actions.

Frank: he can change. That’s called character development.

Me: but…but…I already made this outline! See? Outline!

I jab finger at outline. Frank trots overs over, superhero cape waving, and eats part of the outline in a few gulps. Then burps and gives a beagle smile.

Frank: that’s better. I was really hungry.

Me: my outline…?

I crumple up the rest of the pages.

Me: why does this matter anyway? This is epic fantasy, not a romance novel!

Frank: and character development means she won’t end up with the creep until much later, when he stops being a creep. It clears out the romance issue.

Me: this could work. This could actually work. And it might not require that many changes…okay, forty minutes left on my time slot…

Frank pants happily with a beagle smile.

Frank: I could still eat the homework.

Me: no.

Frank: just offering…


((The first picture is of the “real Frank”, who lived a long and good life. The second is his successor, Squirt. Who lives with my parents and is proving equally able to eating everything in sight)).

Humor-Up With Cute Animals

I’m a natural scowler. I scowl when I’m thinking, I scowl when I’m bored, I scowl when I’m daydreaming, and yes, I’ve even scowled occasionally when I’m actually upset.

However, one thing that can make me laugh is a cute animal.

Animals are also GREAT to add to stories, especially for a dose of humor. And remembering that stories are a balance of disaster and hope, dropping in an animal friend or even the odd encounter with some kind of creature is a fantastic way to add a bit of lightness, especially if your characters aren’t especially light (or the situation is serious).

There is also a place for Cujo and other animals of doom, but that is another, far-less-humorous blog post.

In a more positive light, animals in stories can:

  • Bring out different sides of characters
  • Be an adorable catalyst for stuff to happen
  • Be a source of comfort and support
  • Give an opportunity to show a character as good (‘save the cat’ moment)
  • Soften or add depth to a villain
  • …be something to kill off if you need to add tragedy and can’t stomach killing a character (although be careful, because readers get attached to animals too)

So on this Monday of Mondays (all Mondays tend to be very Mondayish), I challenge any fellow writers to add a cute/friendly/otherwise semi-helpful animal to their story.

For those of you who have cute/friendly/otherwise semi-helpful animals as a part of your story, please feel free to share!

And for more photos, check out my Cute and Crazy Pinterest board, dedicated to “awww!” moments and goofy pets.

And if you’re into making up your own critters? The awesome Kat Heckenbach wrote an great intro blog post on Crafting Creatures at the Realm Makers blog. I also found this tutorial on 10 Steps to Creating Realistic Fantasy Animals.

Balance Your Plot With Disaster and Hope

It doesn’t matter how carefully you plot–your story will always surprise you. (Tweet This)

Sometimes those surprises are good. In the fantasy/suspense I’m writing, I had slated the main protagonist to face a terrible tragedy throughout the plot.

The tragedy got better. In one scene. Whoops! There goes that side plot!

Now I don’t always take plot surprises well. However, in this case my beta readers loved the plot twist. And after a skim of the outline, I realized why. This protagonist had been put through the wringer, and she was continually dealing with oppression from the Big Bad.

The plot twist gave hope. And in doing so, it also motivated me to keep writing. Hopefully? It will keep the readers going through the next disaster that the character will face.

Plots are a balance of disaster and hope. (Tweet This)

A lot of books and websites tend to focus on the disaster part, perhaps assuming that authors enjoy coddling their characters and so aren’t willing to make them hurt. While this can be a temptation, it can be equally tempting to veer too far in the other direction and leave out the hope. After all, the best way to end a scene is uncertainty, right? Ladle on the disaster and darkness and peril, and readers won’t be able to put it down.

But after a while? Darkness gets, well, dark. Sneaking in tidbits of hope, whether it’s a brief romantic moment, a few snarky one-liners, or even a spiritual realization, can give the reader just a bit more to go on, to cling to, while they ride out the next wave of frustration. And if you’re mean enough, you can create that moment of disaster by yanking away the hope. Just make sure there’s another hopeful moment coming on down the line.


  • The Hunger Games: Katniss meets Rue in the arena, and gets the brief reprieve of companionship.
  • Star Wars – The Empire Strikes Back: Luke survives confronting Darth Vader, AND gets a neat cyborg hand – which shows he is moving forward.
  • Les Miserables: Jean Valjean repeatedly has moments of peace and tranquility before the Javert tracks him down.

Depending on the genre? Some stories need more disaster (thrillers, suspense, dystopian). Others thrive on the hopeful moments (romance, comedy). But in most cases? You need a mix of both. It will help you and the reader keep turning pages.


Have you seen a movie, book, or television show that does this well? How about your own work? Please share!

The Fairy Tale Realtor

((I’ve moved quite a few times over my life, and so naturally that had to inspire some humor! Enjoy — and more is coming, so keep an eye out!))

Hello, Ever After Real Estate! Making dreams come true, even for you! How can I help you?

Pardon me sweetie, you said moving? In two weeks? Well, aren’t we in a hurry! Where are you coming from?

Yes, I’ve heard the Emerald City has been getting crowded lately! Ever since that musical got published

in Otherplace. I’m sure you’re tired of defying gravity and ready to come back down to earth.

Ah, you’ve heard that one a few times. My apologies. Now, are you at your mirror?Okay, make sure you toggle it to the shared network setting. Are you there?

Good. I’ve found several promising properties a little farther out. There’s some lovely suburbs. Wide, tree-lined streets, plenty of sidewalks and little parks. Perfect for settling down! Plus, reasonable rates, and no major magical issues to deal with.

No? Well, what were you looking for then?

I see, you want to go really far out. Well, that’s another matter entirely. I might be able to find you something suitable Out There. Yes, yes. However, just so you know, my rates go up considerably.

Why? It’s dangerous in Out There, darling! A few weeks ago a poor man’s pumpkin patch was ransacked so a tattered maid could have a carriage—and he received no reimbursement because it’s illegal to sue fairy godmothers! And on the subject of pumpkins, I just heard that one of my former clients, Peter P. Eater, killed his wife and then tried to hide her body in a pumpkin! Can you imagine? Anyway, for Out There you pay an extra bag of coin. Two if you want the magical wards, interspecies negotiation, and back-up in duels with current occupants.

Alright! We’re in business now. Let’s see, we have a few romantic farmhouses for sale. Oh, but they were made by Two Pigs Construction. Not the best quality.

How bad? You have to sign a waiver saying you won’t sue us when a wolf blows over your new home.

Continuing on, we also have a few mysterious mountain crags haunted by an assortment of old forgotten wizards and the occasional dragon. Fire-breathing is optional.

Afraid of fire? Let’s try some beach options. Well, we do have a nice cottage on a stretch of pristine coastline. Pure white sands, sparkling clear blue water, the cry of gulls, the smell of fresh salt air.

Wait, there are a few clauses here. Flooding can be a problem. Must be because it’s close to the water.

Also, this particular stretch has a tendency to attract mermaids. Do you have a boyfriend? Well, good luck keeping him if he gets an earful of one of those caterwauling sea vixens. Their song is more potent at stealing men than a supermodel with a great personality. Now, it says here in the ad that mermaids generally go for princes, but there’s a shortage of those lately with the rise of democratic governments in Fairyland, so any upper class hunk will do.

Something else? Well, this one just popped up today.   A charming villa on the edge of a beautiful forest. Recently inspected, no pests, two full baths. It’s a rental. The landlord seems like a nice old lady, gets along well with everyone. The locals in a nearby village all call her “Grandma.” Rent is easy enough. Hand delivery, over a river and through some woods. Now, there have been some rumors about wolves in the area. Some local woodcutters formed a neighborhood watch, so that’s encouraging.

Well, we’ll add it to the list of possibilities. One final place, though it didn’t seem like your style. It’s a bit…odder, than the other ones. I generally don’t run it by you first-comers.

What’s so strange? Well, for starters it’s made entirely out of candy. Yes, that’s right. Some crazy witch turned architect decided to give to home design a spin. Gumdrop roofing tiles, chocolate-almond bark walls, white icing for the mortar. It used to have some nice red licorice fencing and hard candy stepping stones, but over the years the spells have worn off and well, animals are animals. The inside part is normal enough. Hardwood floors, polished plank walls, one bedroom, small parlor, enclosed back porch. Oh, and here’s an interesting note about the kitchen. It has a modern stove with a stainless steel, extra-large, self-cleaning oven. This witch was apparently very fond of cooking! Funny, she just up and disappeared one day. The place was labeled abandoned after a year and is now in foreclosure.

Anything else? Alright then, let’s get on with this. Make sure you have a notebook and pen.

No, no cars will get you where we’re going. You’ll want to travel with me. Just put on a coat, grab a roll of duct tape, and put your hand on the glass in your mirror.

Will this work? Sweetie, I was part of a task force that moved that giant’s house after Jack did his breaking and entering act. I can move your precious little self! Now, hold on tight dear. We’ve got a lot to see!

Steampunk Pumpkin!

Laughing at Failure

Writing is a joke. At least for me. And I’m not talking about the humor part.

See, I’m an anti-stupidist. It’s a sub-type of perfectionist.

Anti-stupidist: noun.1. person who has a strong aversion to appearing stupid or ignorant. ( Tweet This ) Variation, verb: Anti-stupiding. 2. Person who viciously criticizes and edits their own work so as to avoid appearing stupid, and then throws it away anyway.

Pride and insecurity. They go together like peanut butter and pickles. And like peanut butter and pickles, they often don’t sit well in the stomach.

What’s the antidote?

I realize that everyone messes up, we all fall short, and so I really don’t have any pride worth holding onto. True self-worth cannot be based on my accomplishments and I should be the first to serve others and listen to them, instead of demanding the podium.

And when I have the podium? Sometimes, I’ll fall off it. Because podiums are not very sturdy, really.

Everyone makes mistakes. All of us have done things like leaving the hose on overnight to leak into the lawn, or walking confidently towards a car, only to find it belongs to someone else. A someone else who is glaring suspiciously. Whoops!

Bottom line? Work hard, do your best, and understand that life won’t be easy. There’s a time for tears and a time for joy.

And when the stupid comes? Try to laugh at it. ( Tweet This Quote )

I’m working towards recovery of my anti-stupidism. I’m going to offer an email list soon, with more humor, story snippets, writing tips, and worldview inspiration. I’m also working on a series of videos, because as a teacher, I’m actually pretty comfortable working in that medium to reach out and help others.

Theoretically. I’m saying this after making and tossing fifteen videos, trying to go for the perfect angle. Because practice makes perfect. And more practice?

Makes you want to throw the digital camera out the window.

Hey, I’m not recovered yet.😉

Any other anti-stupidists out there–or regular perfectionists? Other sub types?

Top Ten Teachers in Speculative Fiction

Today marks the return to high school for me–as a teacher, not a student. Although, if the subject was math? Let’s just say there are many, many reasons that I’m a happy English teacher and will never have to cosine a tangent to balance an infinite number of Pi. Although I do like pie.

As I consider the school year ahead, my mind turns to awesome teachers I’ve had. And then, because I’m a geek, it turns to awesome teachers I might have had–if I were a Jedi, for instance. Or a superhero. And that led me to create my:

Top Ten Teachers in Speculative Fiction(in no particular order)

1.) Yoda (Star Wars) – Much wisdom, he has. Better as a puppet, he was. Proves that height matters not, he does.

2.) Professor X (and other X-Men) – Professor X is not only the world’s most powerful telepath, he’s a great teacher, who then mentored his students into becoming superheroes and teachers. How cool is that?

3.) Susan Sto Helit (Discworld) – this no-nonsense granddaughter of Death (through adoption-it’s complicated) runs a tight classroom, filled with the almighty Gold Stars, and epic field trips to other time periods in Discworld.

4.) Gandalf (The Lord of the Rings) – he technically fills more of the mentorship role, but the bottom line is, he knows a lot of stuff and passes it along to the next generation. Except when he doesn’t. But he’s a wizard, and they generally don’t have to explain themselves.

5.) Obi-Wan Kenobi (Star Wars) – I was hesitant to add him, because technically Anakin Skywalker was one of his students. “My pupil turned into Darth Vader” doesn’t look good on a resume. But he redeemed himself by setting Luke on the right path, and really? Teachers can’t fix everything.

6.) Chiron (Percy Jackson and the Olympians) – this centaur of Greek myth is also the activities director at Camp Halfblood. He cares deeply for all the students, and encourages Percy in his regular studies, as well as in his demigod training.

7.) Professor McGonagall – she’s a powerful witch who does many things to protect Hogwarts from evil. Plus, she turns into a cat, which makes the idea of catching a prep-period catnap a lot more possible.

8.) Clara Oswald (Doctor Who) – this Doctor Who companion is spunky, cheeky, and teaches English when not traveling time and space. Her multitasking proves that it is possible to have a life outside of school–at least when you have a TARDIS.

9.) Indiana Jones (Indiana Jones movies) – granted, we never see him teach much. Most of the time, he’s ducking out of meetings with his students. Still, he is a college professor and it’s hard to argue with his field research!

10.) Shifu (Kung Fu Panda) – this epic red panda is tiny but mighty, able to fend off many foes with a few flicks of his fingers. He manages to get over his own skepticism and train Po into a winner, proving that the even most unlikely students can succeed.

Who’s your favorite fictional teacher (speculative or otherwise)?