Nancy: The Most Important Question You’ll Ask Your Characters

We writers ask our characters a lot of questions. Who are you? What do you want? How will you get it? What are you willing to suffer, sacrifice, and change to reach your goal? If and when you reach it, are you sure that’s the thing you really want, after all?

These are all important questions. They are fundamental to building believable characters. But they aren’t enough to get to the heart of your story. To do that, you have to ask your characters why? Not just once or twice or even three times, but over and over again. Ask it until there is nothing more to uncover, until it seems your characters have nothing left to say. And then ask it one more time.

The importance of the question ‘why’ is a core concept of Lisa Cron’s Story Genius approach to writing. It makes sense. Of course we want to know why our characters do what they do. One way to learn why our characters want and do and react the way they do is to add whys throughout our development process. So what do you want? is followed by why do you want that?. How will you get it? is followed by why is that the path you’ll take?. Etc., etc. Ad infinitum.

And when should you stop asking why? When you’ve finished writing (and revising and editing and proofing) the book. To think about how this would work in your own writing process, consider the way you get through the first draft. Do you ever run into story snags, plot problems, or character inconsistencies? For most writers, the answer is all the time. Cron recommends that when we get ourselves and our stories into these messes, we put away the plot outlines and the spreadsheets and the white boards. Instead of pulling out plotting tools, sit down with pen/paper/computer, and start digging deeper into why with our characters.

If that sounds too simple, you might not be digging deep enough. You might have stopped asking why too soon. For example, if your character’s goal is to earn a million dollar payoff and you ask why she wants it, she might answer ‘for security’. You can’t stop there. Next question is, why do you want security? Why is it more important than other things you could do with a million bucks? Why do you feel insecure? And then, after all those whys, you might be back to what. What specifically happened in your life to breed this insecurity?

Because that’s where all those whys are leading: to the specific, concrete details of this character’s life. The goal of money is vague. The reason of security is even more nebulous. But by asking more questions, you’ll determine whether your character is a woman who grew up wealthy, was disowned by her family, but is still a target for kidnapping who needs to hire a full security detail, or is a destitute woman on the run from an abusive ex-husband who needs enough money to disappear and create a new identity for herself and her kids.

These women might both want a million dollars, and they might both be looking for security, but their thoughts, actions, reactions, and things they’ll sacrifice along the way will be completely unique. You need to dig deep to find those specific details, those concrete life experiences and influences that have made your character who she is before she walks onto the first page. To do that, you’re going to need a whole big bucket of why.

And lest you think characters are the only ones who need to answer the burning question why, consider putting yourself on the hot seat as well. Why do you need to write this story, out of the billions of other stories floating in the creative ether? Why do you need to write it now? What does it say to you, for you, and about you? For in answering these questions, you’ll find your true north of the story you’re writing, and you and your characters can live happily ever after (HEA). Or happily for now (HFN). Or not. It all depends upon the details of your specific story. And while you’re figuring it out, you can watch Louis C.K. getting the full-on character treatment of why in this clip.

So how’s the writing going? Any problems getting your characters to answer your questions? Any story snags that could benefit from a long interrogation into why?


2 thoughts on “Nancy: The Most Important Question You’ll Ask Your Characters

  1. Oh, boy. Why really is the most difficult question of all to answer. Sometimes, it’s kind of hard to stop asking why . . . why are we here? Is there any reason behind us being here and now and behind this keyboard at this particular moment in history? At this point, sometimes the best thing is to turn off the questions and just roll with it — I write, therefore I am . . . maybe?

    (-: Sorry. Just having an existential crisis. BRB.

    • Oh no, don’t have a crisis! But your characters…they should definitely have a crisis. Or three. Chase them up a tree and shoot at them and all of that. And make them tell you why!!! đŸ™‚

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