Jocelyn Green

Jocelyn Green is an award-winning author and journalist. Along with contributing writers, she is the author of the Faith Deployed series of devotions for military wives, and coauthor of Stories of Faith and Courage from the Home Front. Her debut novel, Wedded to War, releases from River North Fiction July 1. Her favorite things include the color red, Mexican food, chocolate and coffee, and a story well told, whether it’s a movie, book, or song. She lives with her husband and two small children in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Visit her at, or find her on Facebook at

For Writers Only

Grilling Your Characters: 7 Questions to Make Your Plot Sizzle

Summer days are filled with sunshine and splashing, evenings with the sound of cicadas and aroma of whatever we (or our neighbors) are grilling. For three or four months out of the year, we cook and eat outside whenever possible.

But when it comes to writing fiction, grilling is always in season, and it’s guaranteed to add flavor to your characters and sizzle to your plot.

You may have heard about interviewing your characters before you write your story. I say grill ’em. Turn up the heat and make them sweat. The techniques I used as a reporter have served me well in fiction writing, too. In addition to getting characters’ basic bio information and physical description, dig deeper by grilling your main characters with these questions. You may be surprised by the flavorful blends their responses give you!

1. What do you want more than anything? What’s your goal?

The purpose: Her goal is what she’s striving for throughout the book. Put it in jeopardy through a variety of obstacles.

How to use it: Make the character’s goal clear in the first chapter. Put characters’ goals at odds with each other.

For example, in my novel Wedded to War, Charlotte Waverly’s goal of being a nurse for the Union army conflicts with Phineas Hastings’s goal to keep her in New York City and marry her. Charlotte is also at odds with her mother’s goal to keep her safe.

2. What if you didn’t reach the goal?

The purpose: This helps you know if her goal is big enough to carry a novel. If it’s not a big deal for her goal to be unmet, she needs a bigger goal. The stakes must be high—life or death, literally, or a professional, emotional, or spiritual death.

How to use it: Disappoint your characters by blocking their goals at least a few times. Will she back down or try harder? Will his heart bleed or turn to stone?

Watch how Phineas reacts to the obstacle to his goal:

I should never have let her go. Phineas crumpled Charlotte’s latest letter and jammed it into his pocket, nearly popping the stitches with the force. I should never have let her out of this city, out of my sight. The evening’s chorus of chirping crickets seemed to be laughing at him incessantly. His breath came faster, his legs propelled him farther down Twenty-first Street in a blind fury. He kept his head down so no one would see his eyes under the brim of his black bowler.

He had written to Charlotte begging her to come home now that disaster had befallen so near to her. He had been kind. Romantic, even. At least he had thought so. But firm. And she had written back—but not for days—and said no.

She said no to me.

She had defied him, like her mother had always defied his father. The thought made him sick.

Then we get into what’s really bothering Phineas—the fear that he’ll either lose Charlotte before he can marry her, or end up a hen-pecked cowardly husband like his father. How far will Phineas go to keep that from happening?

3. What are you really good at? What do people like about you?

The purpose: Find her strengths. Readers will not like your character unless there are things to like or love about her.

How to use it: Use her strengths to set her up as a sympathetic character. But later in the book, make her fail at what she thought she was good at. This brings her to a dark moment, a crossroads, where she has to decide what to do. A choice that previously seemed out of character for her would now be believable.

4. What do you hate about yourself?

The purpose: Learn her flaws: a body part she isn’t satisfied with, or a single or habitual sin. A follow-up question is: What’s your biggest secret?

How to use it: If she hates something about her appearance, it will color how she carries herself, or the clothes she wears. Something deeper may cause her shame, guilt, or an inability to form close relationships. Whatever she hates about herself must come out in the open. Then what will happen?

When we meet Irish immigrant Ruby O’Flannery in Wedded to War, we see immediately that she hates her posture deformed by needlework. Later in the book, she hates something else—her new biggest secret—and this drives the rest of her storyline. Here we see her weighing her options:

Ruby couldn’t sleep.

The same mattress that had once cradled her body in softness now felt like a bed of nails, the sheets like weights pressing the air out of her lungs.

Like a body. Hot and heavy.

Ruby threw off the covers and jumped out of bed, gasping for air. Her racing pulse sounded loudly in her ears as she knelt down on the cool hardwood floor for the seventh night in a row, unshed tears swelling thickly in her throat. Would she ever be able to sleep in a bed again without being haunted by an unforgiving memory?

. . . Now, when each night’s blackness rendered her blind on a bed again, her mind reeled her back to the very moments she wanted most to forget. What have I done to deserve that?

If Matthew found out, he would kill her.

If Mrs. Hatch found out, she would fire her.

If the American Moral Reform Society found out, they would turn their backs on her.

God already knew, and could never forgive her. He had turned His back on her already.

She was on her own now more than ever before.

5. What is your life’s most dramatic event? How has it shaped you and your beliefs?

The purpose: First, it gives you more backstory to understand her. Second, you’ll see if her faith and beliefs are shaken by circumstances, or if trials make her stronger.

How to use it: You will understand her motivations as she navigates life. If you want her to change how she responds to hardship, introduce another character or event that will change her mind.

The most dramatic event for the Waverly family was the death of Charlotte’s father. The memory of his kindness to the patients in the hospital prompts her to apply to be a nurse. The memory of his death from exposure to disease fuels Caroline’s desire to keep Charlotte away from hospitals. One is motivated by mercy and service, the other by self-preservation.

6. What is your biggest fear?

The purpose: Discover how to rock her world.

How to use it: Your characters must face their biggest fears. How far will they go to avoid what terrifies them? It depends on the intensity of their fear.

7. What is your most treasured possession? Why?

The purpose: This reveals what’s important to her, materially and nostalgically, since most objects are made more valuable by the memories attached to them.

How to use it: If the object is small enough, use it in a mannerism. What happens if this object is lost or stolen? Better yet, what would cause your character to part with it?

In Wedded to War, Phineas possesses his father’s gold pocket watch, which he holds whenever he feels insecure. Readers know he’s feeling threatened when he grips it.

To really grill your characters, ask all the follow-up questions you can think of, and then some. But these will certainly get you started.

Grill your characters and your plot will go from flat and bland to spicy and robust. Conflicted and well-drawn characters make a story sizzle.


Wedded to War