Writing Your Character’s Why

Apologies for missing last week’s post—but it gave me time to think about how, when we write fiction, our character’s “why” must be clear to our readers’ emotions.

Writing Tip for Today: Here are a few tips for understanding your character’s why:

Who Is This?

They say all fictional characters have at least some of the author in them. While it’s true that we usually write from what we know, a character can be made believable even if they’re outside your own experience. If you write an opposite sex character or someone outside your culture or ethos, you take on an added burden of authenticity. Readers who understand that character’s point of view will hold you to a strict test.

One way to expand your characters so that they aren’t really you in disguise is to use composite characters from real life. Take a character tag (a habit) of someone you’ve observed and meld it with a different person’s appearance, temperament or attitudes. Be wary of ending up with a stereotype—say, a bad guy who wears a black hat.

Pay special attention to characters from an ethnic group outside your own. Some maintain that you can’t write a character from another race or culture unless you have a direct connection or identity with that group. If you write your character in First Person Point of View, be sensitive to writing about a group you don’t belong to.

What Happened?

Your character’s “why”—motivation—is the true spine of your story. Readers want to identify with a character enough to suspend disbelief. You are the way you are because of the total of your experiences plus your own personality. What happens in any character’s life before the story starts must shape the character’s motivations (reasons) for pursuing a goal.

The motives are usually rooted in one of several basic human needs: love, security, belonging. We process these needs with emotional reactions to the events in our lives. When we achieve our goals, we’re happy or sad (perhaps we learned our goal wasn’t really a goal). When we fall short, we react positively or negatively, depending on the circumstances.

If you give readers a highly emotional reason for pursuing the story goal, they’re more likely to respond in a deep emotional way. All stories must imbue the character with enough emotional appeal to keep readers anxious to know what happens next.

Give readers a highly emotional reason for pursuing the story’s goal.

How to Go?

When you investigate your character’s back story, you’ll be more likely to hit an emotional nerve if you think of the worst thing that would happen to force your character to pursue the goal. Try not to make it melodramatic, but I’d rather see over-the-top than too shallow an emotional reaction. Experiment with your character’s history to fit the stakes of your story.

These happenings are not an invitation to write copious back story unless you write it alongside but not in your actual story. So many writers get into trouble with back story! Most of the time, it’s best to weave short pieces of it throughout your setup. Put the motivation directly into your character’s emotional reactions instead of explaining (Resist the Urge to Explain!).

Remember, your character’s why doesn’t need to be dumped into Chapter One. You can increase tension by slowly revealing details, keeping the rawest piece of motive for near the climax. Readers who find the character’s “why” are readers who “can’t put it down.”

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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