The Secret of the Five Whys
The secret of the five whys is known to a few writers, but it’s such an awesome way to know your characters and thus make plotting easier, that we had to share. Feel free to pass it on.
A long time ago, when I started writing, a friend (hey, Lisa!) would grill me on my character’s motivation. One answer was never enough for her, she had to ask and ask and ask until the character was stripped bare. Only then would she relent and let me continue telling the rest of the story.
I named her method “The Five Whys” because that was the average number of times she asked me “Why?” about the character.
Let me give you an example.
You have a character named Sue. Sue’s a perfectionist, a control freak. She hates to lose, and is less than scrupulous to anyone who stands in her way of success.
Why is Sue such a bitch?
She has to have things her way.
It’s important for her to be in control.
She can control things as an adult she couldn’t as a child.
Her family life was unpredictable, with no set schedule or routine.
Her younger sister was mentally challenged and disrupted daily life.
After asking “Why?” five times, you know the root cause of almost every decision Sue makes. By doing the same to your protagonist, you’ll know her better and she won’t act out of character when making decisions. Her flaw is exposed, and she’ll need to change her behavior by the end of the book in order to defeat the antagonist.
Remember, how your characters act and react can often be traced back one generation. How their parents were treated may dictate how they treated their child, your character. If Mom was a clean freak (for reasons of her childhood?) then her daughter could either be a second-generation clean freak or a complete slob. If Dad gambled away the family fortune, his son might still have the first dollar he ever made.
Your character isn’t static. He existed before page one. He has a complex history that affects him, whether he’s aware of it or not. By asking “Why?” enough times, you’ll have a better understanding of his motivation and why he wants the goal so much and why he’ll face adversity again and again to obtain it.
This article is an excerpt from The Plot Thickens: 21 Ways to Plot Your Novel
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I’m definitely a believer in the 5 whys, though sometimes it can be helpful to have something to browse. Recently I’ve gotten into a couple of books, the positive and negative trait thesauruses, though I imagine a general psychology book could work as well. I just browse through the pages, perusing different behaviors and looking at root causes until something clicks for me. What I really like about fiction is how one can build from either direction, beginning with a manifested behavior or issue, or a root cause.
I’ve never heard of this technique before, but now I’m going to ask the five whys of all my characters 🙂 Thanks for sharing!
My son did the same with me. I didn’t do the five whys. Instead, I did the history of when/how my characters met and decided they hated one another or secretly crushed on someone. Held a grudge. I made it personal between each player to the point they couldn’t be in the same room without some kind of reaction that slid between them under it all.
I write mysteries. Everyone is a suspect. 😉
Anna from elements of emaginette
I like it! I may try this with my critique partners. I love that you have your own signature brand of advice. 🙂
I like this approach, Cheryl. It reminds me what is important with characters. Mine–early in the writing–are too narrative.
This is a really good tip. It’s simple but it really helps a writer dig deeper. Thanks for sharing
This is a great technique. I pretty much do this when I’m getting to deep revision (though I’ve never counted my whys), and I’m always asking my clients more whys than they’re comfortable with. 🙂
Fantastic character advise! You have such a unique perspective Cheryl. I like diving into the 5’s as your right, in real life, the first answer we get isn’t always the right one. Have a great rest of your day 🙂
I did a group session with Michael Hauge last year, and this is basically the technique he used on all of us. It taught me I don’t know my characters as well as I think. Thanks for the reminder!
Great idea. I’m already planning who to use this technique on first. I understand my protagonist well enough, but my antagonist… well, she’ll be my first test subject for this strategy.