The Unanswerable Questions

One of the best things about a writing community, be it an online forum, a writers’ group, or any other sort of group is that they give you the chance to talk out our stories. Whether you’re a plotter (someone who outlines) or a pantser (someone who plots as they go along), I have yet to find a writer who doesn’t like talking about their work. Sure, hearing, “Oh, what’s your story about?” isn’t always the most loved question (writing something is so much easier than summarizing it while not making it sound completely boring and/or bizarre for some reason…) but even if you don’t like quick summaries, getting the chance to talk about your story, on your terms is almost always fun.

Beyond that, talking things out can definitely help when you’ve hit a writer’s block, or even just a snag. Ignoring any little side projects, what I have been writing lately has been quite an undertaking for me. For one, it is a series. I’ve never done a series before, and for a die-hard pantser that’s a bit of a struggle. (I currently have two small notebooks of just notes so I can keep everything straight/not have continuity errors between the books. Broke down and got Scrivener [another NaNoWriMo sponsor] as well. Good outlining software, for the record). Also, since it’s historical fiction, it takes a lot more research work than my modern or fantastical works have. I know what sort of cell phone all of my friends have, I can make up what fantasy characters have, I actually have to look up what historical characters have, and that makes for slower going.

Luckily, I have people I can talk to to work through all these problems. In a stroke of luck, my dear boyfriend is a historian, and thus has become my live in history expert for all those random “I have no idea if they would do this. Honey?” questions. And for what he can’t help me with (or when I feel like I’ve bugged him too much recently) I have my dear friends over at the NaNoWriMo forums.

There are plenty of other writing communities online, but they’re mine when I have a question I often find myself posting in either the Reference Desk (for the factual questions) or Plot Doctoring (for help with a plot hole and such). When possible, I also try to help other WriMos with their questions.

Many of the questions get good discussions going (and save our friends and family from having to listen to us try to talk out our plots) but you also get a fair share of questions that are truly just not answerable.

“My character is a 17-year-old girl who lives in Alaska. What would her favorite band be?”

Really, how would any of us begin to help answer that? There are so many different answers there’s no place to begin. Is she into classic rock? Punk? Top 40? How would any of us know?

Now, the problem with most of these questions, I believe, is not that the author doesn’t know their own characters (or at least I would hope it’s not that), it’s that the author knows their characters too well. You’ve been either writing or outlining them for however long that it doesn’t cross your mind when asking about them to specify that they are homeschooled, and like pop, and…

If that’s the case, when looking for help, it’s important to think about everything the people whom you are asking for help don’t know. It might make for a really long question, but it will end up taking less time then having half a dozen posts asking about the character before you actually end up getting anywhere.

Now, if it really is that you just don’t know your character (it isn’t that you aren’t a seventeen-year-old and want some teenage opinions), before ever bringing things up to other people to answer, try using a character questionnaire. These handy tools give you questions to help you work out just who your character is, from hair color, to family, to favorite food. Once you have one of these filled out, then you’ll be able to ask the small questions without having trouble answering all the little things about them.

Just, please, don’t put everything on a questionnaire into your story…info dumps are no fun.

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