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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