The Writing Life: Why?


by Michelle Janene

Most of us have, at one time or another, found ourselves in the unending cycle of why questions with a young child. It starts simple enough with a completely innocent query. A request to go to the park, get a toy, or to explain the world around them. We answer, but the next question is; why? We answer—only to get another why. And they continue until we run out of answers.

Why, is an important question. And it’s doubly so for writers.

As we write, we know that we have to give our characters goals; sometimes more than one and even conflicting intentions. The story is driven by how they try to attain their end objectives and all the things that stand in their way as the story progresses. But there is an even more important question—why? Why do your characters do what they do? Why is this ambition so important to them?

Not only do we, as the author, need to know the answer to that question, but we have to sprinkle the reason in the story line like a well-seasoned soup. The reader wants to know what makes our characters tick, but they hate being told outright.

I discovered this recently. One of my characters is fifty, and has never really dated. She meets a man and their relationship grows, but instead of being over-the-moon joyful, she’s terrified. She won’t let him in her house and won’t go inside his. My critique group kept asking me week after week, why this guy would stay with her. I hadn’t done a good enough job of making my character’s why known.

Rewrites will include a little more of each of these characters’ backstories in small vignettes. What is the emotional baggage they are carrying, and how is it driving the whys of their story now? Why are they making this choice and not a different one? Why would they choose this path over another?

Maybe your character works for a secret agency and anyone who learns about it will be banished to a remote place for the rest of their life. Knowing that helps the reader understand why she won’t date and has no friends. In her opinion, she's saving them from a horrible fate, even if it means she's drowning in loneliness.

What about the by-the-book detective who is hunting for his missing brother? Knowing this is the only family he has left might explain why he is willing to break the law to find the answer.

I’ve heard of authors who interview their characters. They sit and ask them questions. There are online character sheets which let writers map out a characters’ likes and dislikes, education, up bringing, family, jobs, and hobbies. Some writers use software which have areas to help focus on the characters and their lives. However we do it, developing each of our main characters must have some time devoted to coming up with their whys.


About the Author

Michelle Janene lives and works in Northern California. Most days she blissfully exists in the medieval creations of her mind. She is a devoted teacher, a dysfunctional housekeeper, and a dedicated writer. She released her first novella Mission: Mistaken Identity in 2015. God’s Rebel came out in 2016, followed by Rebel’s Son and Hidden Rebel in 2017.

She has been published in “Guide Post Magazine” and several anthologies. She leads two critique groups and is the founder of Strong Tower Press—Indie solutions for indie authors.

You can find her at Strong Tower Press, Turret Writing, on Facebook, Twitter, and on Goodreads.

You can read Michelle’s “The Writing Life” column on the 3rd Tuesday each month here at Pandora’s Box Gazette.

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