The Most Important Question in Character Development

When you stop to think about it, possibly under the influence of a drink, chemical, or hazy cloud of dust, you have to admit that stories are inexorably linked to questions. Folktales and mythology from ages long ago were crafted to answer questions of the natural world. The science fiction of the modern day answers the questions of our existence, the universe, and our future within it. Whether the answers that these stories present to us are correct is beside the point – the question is always there.

Journalism teaches that there’s five (sometimes six) questions to be asked for every story: who, what, when, where, and why. They say that if you have these five elements, you can fill all the requirements of the audience’s need to know and craft a good news story. Sometimes they may add “how”, but that is often only for situations where the “how” is fascinatingly complicated. Together, these questions also leave a lasting impact on fiction. After all, every story answers them even if you don’t intend to.

“In ancient Greece (when, where), Hercules (who), the demigod son of Zeus (what, who), is given twelve labors to complete (what) with his mighty strength (how) as a means of finding redemption for having murdered his family under the influence of Hera (why).”

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Portrayed (what) in 2014 (when) by Dwayne Johnson (who) for a big fat check (why)

These details are everywhere in story telling and the more of them you have, the better your story becomes. But, in fiction, one of them happens to be more important than the rest of them combined. This one question in the batch of six happens to give all of the others importance in a way that nothing else can. Without the most important question, none of the other details have any meaning. And that question is…

Why?

“Why” is the question that ties everything together for a fiction writer. You can write a news report without focusing too heavily on why. In fact, you can have some instances (mass murders, for instance) where you may never know the answer to why someone did what they did. But if you’re going to write a fiction story, nothing else matters at all unless you know why it should matter.

After all, you’ve just crafted what is essentially a long line of bullshit. If anyone is going to understand or relate to what you’ve written down, they’re going to need to understand the “why” more often than not. Who, what, when, and where can be rattled off relatively quickly by just about every writer. But why can be a sticking point. In fact, of all the things I’ve ever had to help newer writers work on, the thing I’ve had to come back to more than any other was the “why”. A lot of writers, especially the new ones, will answer why with: “because that’s what I need to have happen for the story to work.”

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That’s when the tough love kicks in

These same writers will then often get stuck or end up with a story everyone says feels forced. After all, what’s done by the who doesn’t matter if you don’t understand why they did it. If your character’s motivations are vapor, so is their chance of their character arc having any sort of natural progression. And it extends to more than just motivations, because through motivations, the question of why also extends into…

Your Character’s Actions

The “why” behind your characters actions serves two vital functions. The first of the functions is that it will let you continue to determine what they’re going to do next. One of the biggest problems for new writers is that the plot starts to get away from them and their protagonist’s next move escapes them. When you know “why” they’re doing the thing they’re doing, you’ll understand what their next decision and action is going to be. It’s a simple concept, but it continues to move you forward. If you don’t understand why your character is doing what they’re doing, you won’t know the next decision they would have made either.

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The second function is that it’s going to make your audience understand the actions too. If you’re true to the actions that line up with their motivations, those actions will indicate the motivations to the audience and will make it easier to understand the character and feel empathy towards them. You draw your audience in by making them put themselves in the protagonist’s shoes in some way. Understanding of the protagonist’s position makes it easier (read: possible) to do that.

Done correctly, you can explain things to your audience through action rather than words. There are certain aspects of human nature that need not be explained, an unspoken bond that all people share. If you have a consistent motivation, one of those aspects is likely to extend to the audience through the actions your character takes and makes that character feel more “human”. Without the “why” behind the actions, your character doesn’t feel like a character, they feel like a prop.

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Unfortunately, at that point, no amount of dialogue can fill the hole. For that matter, the why also goes on to impact…

Your Character’s Words

Another aspect of the “why” is what words someone uses. If someone’s dealing with a person for a specific reason, their dialogue is going to be handled a specific way. Are you at a job interview and want the job? Then you’re going to be incredibly polite. Are you just spending time with your friends? You’re going to be casual. Are you in love with someone? You may become very smooth or incredibly awkward.

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This is also going to extend to even word choices. Think about how you deal with people in a typical day and how often you change what words you’re using depending on your situation. You have motivations for almost every word you use when you’re talking to someone with a purpose and the same holds true for your characters. Real people hesitate on word choices, they labor on their specific words, and you’re going to feel the same as you put words in the mouths of fictional people. But the real trick is understanding the character enough that it’s not just you deciding what words to use, it’s also them. And when that happens, you’re once again shaping the characters and making them tangible to the audience.

Eventually, answering the why creates a complete person and, with complete people, you have the final aspect of “why”…

Your Character’s Opinions

Your character’s actions and words will be seen all the time by the audience and they’ll shape how your audience relates to the character. In this way the “why” is most beneficial to the audience because it will help them believe this person is more than just forced words on a page. But, as you work through the “why” of your character’s words and actions, you’ll start to find a character’s personality exists as more than just an artificial construct. You’re going to understand the character as you write and at that point you can go so much deeper.

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For instance, when choosing the words being used in a conversation, you should have an understanding of what tone your character should be having. But beyond that you also should have some inkling of what they think of this other person. The opinions that your character has about a person, place, or thing are going to also influence how they approach it. If that conflicts with the reason they’re there, then they’re also going to have facets of that conflict exposed in their approach. In other words: everyone knows what it feels like when you hate someone but still have to treat them with respect.

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But if you’ve been asking “why” enough by the point someone has a new interaction, you start to form answers to the question by default through an intimate understanding of their opinions. At a certain point, if you’ve been asking “why” enough in the creation of your character and their interactions, their reactions to anything will become second nature to you. The writing of the character will become more natural because you’re going to understand their thought process whenever a new element comes into play. At that point “why” becomes unspoken and you start to think in your character’s place.

You won’t be stuck again, because at a certain point…

Motivation doesn’t need instruction anymore.

(I write novels. I also took acting classes. And yes, I did take “what’s my motivation” to heart.)

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