Character Week! Ask Why

The Spec’s going to try something new this week — a theme for the week’s posts. We’ve received suggestions from readers who would like to hear more about developing characters and making them believable, engaging, and memorable. PJ snuck in a post last week on humanoids in space, which I think qualifies as a character issue. But I’m going to tackle a non-species-specific question asked by a reader:

How do you add depth to characters in a plot-driven fantasy?

I’m sure there are various answers to this, but mine is the same as it would be for any kind of writing, whether plot-driven, fantasy, or otherwise. I don’t have much patience for things like the standard character checklists because the answers (and questions) seem random to me. (I’ve yet to work on a story where the character’s favorite color or song made a whit of difference to my story.) But  the thing that has worked best for me in developing characters is something stolen from my corporate life: “Ask why five times.” Or at least two or three.

Why do they want what they want?

It’s a basic tenet that your characters must have an objective, whether to win the girl, to get the magic amulet, or to survive the apocalypse. But why? “Because the author needs it for the plot” is not a good enough reason. Neither is riches. When the going gets tough, your character has to keep working toward the goal for deep emotional and psychological reasons. Money is never enough.

The answer to why a character wants any goal that’s less than life-or-death may be related to a lack in the character’s life or a previous incident that left a mark. Okay, why does she feel that way? What happened previously — and why? What in her actions or character caused the previous event that left the mark, or at least put her in the wrong place and time?

If your character wants the amulet because she’s greedy (why?), fine. That gives you a flaw to overcome. If it’s because nothing is more important to him than justice (why?), and the amulet will dispense that, then all his interactions with others should reflect that, and any hurdle in his path that requires him to do something unjust on the way to his goal will be a major plot point.

When a character is fighting for survival, the answer to “why?” may seem obvious, but even that “why?” shouldn’t be dismissed. Why do they want to stay alive? Who are they living for? What do they still want to do? Who do they need to kiss, apologize to, or get even with first? Why?

The answers influence actions

Every action, not just the overall goal, should have a series of why?s behind it. (Otherwise, actions and the whole plot can feel forced or contrived.) Answering the “why” questions leads to motivations, character traits, familial relationships, back story, and even the little contradictions that make characters realistic. The answers should also influence actions — how she stays alive, what she avoids in so doing, her mental state during, how she interacts with threats or other survivors. Don’t ignore villains; it’s even more important to know why they do what they do. Nobody does something just to be nasty. And even for sci-fi, which often explores ideas and principles, the strongest characters do things for very personal reasons underneath any commitment they may have to principles. (That is, Sam isn’t committed to justice because it sounds nice; he’s committed because he watched his best friend be unjustly hanged.)

I’m a character-based writer. I can’t imagine plotting a book without knowing who is in the story first, because for me, plot is a series of actions, and actions can only come from character (values, motivations, desires, fears). That said, I’m a pantser, so I usually discover my characters and their motivations as I go. But I never write an action without wondering why the character would do that, and I ask why even more during revision. Asking why should be even easier for plotters (who, in my experience, are more likely to write plot-driven books.) The answers should lead to realistic characters we can understand and relate to.

More to come

We’ll have more character posts all week. In the meantime, who are your favorite literary characters— and why? What about them resonates with you? Why? (Do you see your own traits in them, wish you were more like them, or find yourself fascinated by traits you wouldn’t want? [Why?])

And if there are other specific character-related questions you’d love to address here, let us know!

— Joni, who sometimes asks herself why she can’t write shorter posts

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4 responses to “Character Week! Ask Why

  1. LaWanica

    What a great post. Why? It’s filled with awesome. (And really helpful advice, too.) Seriously, Joni, you are my hero.

    I’d love to read a post about loner characters. The various types and whether or not they truly exist. Very rarely do main characters accomplish their goals solely on their own. I don’t know. It might be something interesting to discuss.

    Anywho, I’m looking forward to this weeks’ posts!
    :) LaWanica

    • Glad it was useful!

      And hmm, loners. Will think about it. Any examples? (Katniss comes first to mind, and even she has Gail… Dustfinger? Le Guin wrote lots of loners, though…)

  2. Natalie Aguirre

    Thanks for the great post. Character development is something I struggle with in my writing and thinking about it like you said–always asking why the character is doing something or what they want helps. I can’t wait for the rest of the week’s posts.

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