Some Thoughts on Character: The Why

Posted: January 3rd, 2013 under Craft.
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Because it’s already late in the evening (nearly 11 pm) but I had a long nap (largely due to a migraine, but that’s another issue) I’m now awake at a time when I can’t first-draft  fiction and won’t sleep.  So in light of the discussion of yesterday’s post–of character stuff–I feel like rattling on about characters in fiction.    Some of this I’m sure I’ve said before; if you need to go “Yeah, yeah, know that, get ON with it” feel free to do so.    But new ideas about characters keep popping up in my head that might be useful to those of  you who want to write fiction–or, want to write nonfiction about people.

One of the things most of us do badly is figure out why someone has done what they’ve done.    We have–from our own upbringing, from our culture’s set of rules, from our experience–a limited set of motivations that we tend to fall back on to explain others’ behavior.   With age and experience we may acquire more understanding (or we may be the kind of hidebound older person who now depends on fewer.)    “Theory of Mind,” proposed as the way humans understand one another’s behavior, is a lot faultier than some psychologists want to admit.

And yet “Why did he/she do that?” is just about the most interesting question to ask, and the most fascinating answer to tease out of the tangled thoughts.    “What is he/she going to do?” is an urgent question, a plot-driving question (the bank is crumbling–will he jump for the other bank?  Throw herself backwards?   Throw the jewel/gun/pouch of secret documents to a confederate?)    “Why?” is the less urgent but deeper question that allows both writer and reader to find out more about the character…or the real-life person.

Five people in the same situation may make the same choice…but for different reasons.  And those reasons have implications for what they do next…and how what they choose affects their lives, and the lives of those around them.   Take something simple:   five people with the choice to attempt an escape from captivity or stay behind and conceal for as long as possible the escape of others.   These five choose to stay behind.  Why?

One is too sick or injured to move fast, and believes he might endanger the others as well as be recaptured.    One has some medical training and believes it his duty to stay with those who are sick or injured (not just that one, but others as well.)   One is claustrophobic, and–knowing that escape means a long crawl through a small dark tunnel–can’t face it.   One is convinced escape attempts are futile and it’s safer to stay, even if those remaining are punished for the escape.   One is planning to betray the escape attempt for a reward from their captors.

But is it simple even so?    A has a passionate desire to be free again; A has a family and yearns to get back to them…what in A’s background puts his duty to those who might escape over his own desire to escape?   B’s medical training could be invaluable to those who are attempting escape as well as those staying behind…what in B’s background makes him *always* choose what it less advantageous for himself?   C’s claustrophobia has a reason–what?  And he’s overcome it before…why not this time?   Suppose they’ve played a card game, or a dice game, and he’s superstitious and saw a card or number that suggested he was doomed if he went?   D is apparently fatalistic and depressed…but six months ago, he wasn’t, and was actively and enthusiastically involved in an escape attempt at another camp…an attempt that failed.   What else is influencing him?   Was it that Dear John letter the guards were so willing to show him?  And E, the traitor….was he always a traitor?   Or was it something–or several somethings–that happened recently, triggering his determination to turn the others in?    A friendly guard?   A series of petty insults by another prisoner, one of them who’s definitely going?   Something someone said that he misinterpreted (being, as we all are under stress, touchy and irritable and apt to treat even a well-meant comment as an insult)?  The realization from D’s “Dear John” letter that D was the person in basic training who “stole”  E’s girlfriend and later married her?

The writer sees a story situation from a writer’s point of view–has to, because the plot has to hold water.    For the purposes of that story, five who are in on the secret of the escape attempt have to stay behind, along with a lot of others who know nothing about it.    For the purposes of that story, the attempt is betrayed and only one escapes; the rest are killed.   For the purposes of that story, let’s say, the mystery of who betrayed the others must remain a mystery to the reader for a given span of the book.

But to make the story real–to make characters real to the reader–to give the full effect of Story–the writer must also know the viewpoint of each character.  How does that character see/understand what’s happening?    How does that character understand the motivations of the other characters?   How does the story interact with that character’s background, motivating certain actions via choices either obvious (to that character) or confusing and difficult (to that character?)   Decisions slowly arrived at, or made abruptly, in the heat of the moment…or made thoughtlessly because this character just follows his momentary influences?  What does this imply about the character’s future actions?

With that, the writer must snap back to writer-viewpoint and decide which motivation suits the story best (or, allow that something is so strong for that character that the story will have to change course to accommodate it)  and then decide how much the reader needs to know at that point.    Does the motivation require a point-of-view section?    Should the reader know that character’s motivation now, or later,  or should it have been set up before?

There’s no one right answer to any of these.   Motivation is complex, difficult to analyze in many cases, nearly always multi-factorial.     Why does X take a pain pill the moment there’s any discomfort, and Y not take one until she’s been in pain for hours?   Willpower?  No.  Because behind willpower or no willpower are value systems, cultural influences, personal experience, personal decisions on right/wrong/effective/ineffective/…and so forth.

The more the writer sinks into a character…listens to the character the way that a trained therapist listens to a patient, or a good parent listens to a child…the more the writer will understand the why of that character.   So that if the writer wants the character to jump onto or off of a moving vehicle…the writer will convey (one way or another) why that character would do such a thing.   To catch a thief?  That’s the surface layer.    What makes him capable of doing such a thing?    Why would the idea even occur?

We all do things that someone considers out of character.    And yet–to us–that out of character behavior seemed the only thing to do (at the time, at least.)   “You don’t really know me,” we would say to the person who can’t believe we did “that”.   To be a writer–to be a writer of people, whether fictional people or historical figures–means digging into the midden of motivation, digging up those shards and shreds of cloth that offer clues to the why.     The deeper we dig–the more we discover of the many, varied ways that motivation grows in the human mind and heart–the better we can depict it, and by doing so offer readers insights they may find useful (or at least entertaining.)


  • Comment by Gareth — January 4, 2013 @ 3:20 am


    It must be hard to not write the details of the thoughts of the character that you have so clearly worked through. Stories don’t need all the analysis (to be written), they need the story with credible actions caused by motivations we can believe but don’t always need to be told. Any tips for the writer on how to step back and just tell the story, or when to explain in more detail what a character is thinking. In general I suspect the writer needs to know, the reader doesn’t need to know but is encouraged to discover.

  • Comment by Annabel — January 4, 2013 @ 4:07 am


    I’m finding this with a story I’m – well, not writing, more playing with. F has been – not abused, exactly, but brought up in the way her parents thought proper, with no regards to her particular needs and wants, which are slightly different from most people’s; I am struggling to know how this will affect her actions once this is realised and her parents and siblings forced to come to terms with who she really is.

  • Comment by Jenn — January 4, 2013 @ 10:16 am


    This is why I love your books as I say every time you write about your characters. So continue writing about their back ground and I will continue loving it.

    Maybe this why your world is so real. I wait in hope to find out about background characters as much as the main ones. Did Effa? (don’t have the books near by) have her baby (she should have by now)? Was it a boy or a girl? How does Dorrin look upon a bastard Verrakai? Odd how one characters half page of fame in book one still resonates.

  • Comment by Martin LaBar — January 4, 2013 @ 10:25 am


    Well done. Thanks for doing this. Be well!

  • Comment by elizabeth — January 4, 2013 @ 10:44 am


    Annabel: Listen to F. I’m sure you’ve known people in her situation–and you can also read case histories if you feel the need for more. Her reactions are likely to be stronger if the mismatch between her parents’ “proper” upbringing and her innate needs is larger, but not always–a new friend/mentor/lover can be the “releaser” for accumulated tension and resentment by expressing what F has been unable/unwilling (why unwilling? sense of duty to parents?) to express bit by bit. There’s often a very uneven transition from her self-image, inculcated by family from birth to “revelation,” to the new one based on her reality–there’s back-and-forth behavior, based on back-and-forth feelings. But sounds like fascinating character you’re playing around with. When you feel ready, start putting F in actual situations and just see what she does. Expect surprises.

  • Comment by elizabeth — January 4, 2013 @ 10:46 am


    I don’t have that one nearby either (other end of house…should pull the ARC for each book in here, shoudln’t I?) but I thought I remembered that she had a miscarriage.

  • Comment by elizabeth — January 4, 2013 @ 11:05 am


    Gareth: It’s hard to give advice because it varies from one writing situation to another. Generally, the less important the character overall, the less depth you show: the character doesn’t get a POV section, for instance. Your protagonist, who will get POV, must be revealed “enough” (I know, that’s a cop-out, but a necessary one) at each point in the story, and you may not know when you start how much is enough, and when. You don’t know, when you start, how each of the character’s possible motivations will play in each situation. The same person who startles and knocks a platter of figs off the table when he sees a spider about to climb on his hand may be able to subdue that arachnophobia when he’s sneaking through a tunnel to rescue a friend and feels a spider on his face. But you can make the tunnel-sneaking more dramatic if you showed the platter-of-figs incident earlier. Now readers will imagine how much harder it is for him…what you don’t want to do is stop the story in mid-tunnel to say “It took all John’s self-control not to scream when he felt the spider on his face because when he was five years old his older brother Ralph put a spider down the back of his shirt and it bit him and he was sick for two days and ever since then he’s been terrified of all spiders…”

    The right mix of revealing and concealing varies with the character, the scene, and the kind of story it is (also how long the story is.) Some genres allow much more revelation of motivation through character rumination than others. For methods–I’m a fan of writing the story, the whole story, first and then doing analysis on it. But if you’re an outliner, then include in your outline a box for “why” at the decision points. Leave it a little loose and wiggly–as you write, you learn more about your characters and it may be that a better reason for Stan to quit his job the day after a promotion shows up.

  • Comment by Suburbanbanshee — January 4, 2013 @ 6:38 pm


    I remember as a kid that this was always one of the bafflements of life — people would ask you why you did something, and you had no idea. And I think that’s always going to be the case, nine times out of ten, if you’re just going along living. You only know why if there’s a decision, and even then you might not know why you don’t see obvious alternatives to what you end up choosing to do.

  • Comment by pjm — January 5, 2013 @ 3:19 am


    Even prominent people can’t always expain themselves. There was a famous incident in Australian politics back in the 1980’s – a minister sent a military spy aircraft over Tasmania. When asked why, he said that he only had the streaker’s defence – it seemed like a good idea at the time.
    How often have we all done things for just that reason.


  • Comment by Annabel — January 5, 2013 @ 12:23 pm


    Thanks, Elizabeth.

  • Comment by Margaret — January 5, 2013 @ 7:13 pm


    ISTR Ms. Moon has commented in this blog that she actually writes-out a LOT more back-story and even plot-narrative than eventually shows-up in the final draft. Some of these we get to see as bonus-snippets, like the story of that sergeant and her troop following the dragon’s fire-path. This all went into the writer’s understanding of the character, but did not need to be told to advance the main story efficiently.

  • Comment by Ginny W. — January 8, 2013 @ 11:46 am


    I find it really hard to let the action and conversation reveal the motivation. You do that really well, letting little hints creep in from time to time, so that the characters develop. We get our knowledge of characters, like our knowledge of people from all the little actions, decisions, and comments. In the Deed books, this came out most in the development of Kieri’s loyalty and care for his people – and made the difficulty of his decision to go to Lyonya real. I wonder what would happen in case of a real conflict?

  • Comment by Ginny W. — January 8, 2013 @ 11:49 am


    By the way, I think I like these comments about writing almost as much as snippets. Food for thought!

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