Questions are the building blocks of writing. The answers to the questions that you ask are what builds your story.
When it comes to non-fiction writing – journalism in particular – there are the famous 5 Ws which need to be answered in any given news story: Who, What, Where, When, Why. And then, sometimes, it is instructive to add an H – How.
In fiction it is not THAT different: they are the fundamental questions for building a story. And the most basic questions are the three which define Character — WHO, WHAT, WHY.
On the face of it, the first two questions – WHO and WHAT – might seem to be very similar. But I come to it from a point of view that is almost Nature vs Nurture – WHO a person is depends on the stuff that’s inborn, inside, instinctive; WHAT he is depends on the circumstances that have shaped him.
For instance, WHO I am is a writer – because that is what I do, it’s an instinct, something that I have to do and which drives me. WHAT I am is an author, a published writer, and for that I have had to learn my craft, and practice it, and work with others in order to make it happen.
In some cases, the WHAT informs the WHO, rather than vice versa. For instance, if “I am the Queen of Ruritania” is treated as the WHO part of the equation because it is something that you were born to and therefore which has shaped you all your life, the WHAT is something along the lines of, “…and therefore I am the person on whom the responsibility for her people’s well-being ultimately rests.” It’s the title that builds the personality.
You can have fun with this when you are building characters in a novel, in either direction. Most will do it in a forward direction, like the rest of us do, living their changes, starting with a WHO AM I set of characteristics and then developing those into a WHAT AM I personality as it accretes the trappings of their world. But sometimes it’s instructive doing it in reverse – a character who starts out as an evil wizard (technically a WHAT) can be deconstructed backwards to the roots of that, until you reach the bedrock of WHO that wizard was before he turned evil and wizardly. J K Rowling did something of the sort with the flashbacks about the early Voldemort.
One way or another, the WHO/WHAT dynamic in a character is very much about a character’s growth and changes while that character is engaged in a central problem which is the raison d’etre of a piece of fiction.
But there is one other crucial piece of evidence that’s missing from the picture at this point, because none of this happens in a vacuum of intent: characters in fiction – like real people – must have a reason for doing something, for changing something; the bridge, if you will, between the WHO and the WHAT. And that bridge – it’s called “motivation” – is the WHY.
This character had a lousy childhood (WHO) and turned into a serial killer (WHAT) because they were paying back old debts from their salad days (WHY). It’s the WHY that centers them. And it’s a WHY that has to remain overtly silent – because if the reader is putting the book down and asking, frustrated, “But WHY did he do that?” you’ve lost the battle for that reader’s willing suspension of disbelief and the fabric of your story falls apart. The trick to the WHY is to supply the BECAUSE which your reader never realized they were asking for, or thought they needed to ask. A good writer poses the WHY question in the form of the BECAUSE answer, and the reader is given all the building blocks of that necessary bridge within the narrative framework itself.
This is hard to even write about never mind do it, or do it well. Characters who change believably within a motivational framework are the characters who are most remembered, though. It’s worth the struggle. The prize is a great one.
Next time we will discuss the When, Where, and How.