The “Why” vs. the “What” of Character

The “Why” vs. the “What” of Character

In my last post I explored the emotional motivations of a character I was developing, putting meat on the bones. As I’ve worked the last month to continue to develop my new book project, I’ve given more thought to character development, realizing that I had more to say on the topic.

I can know something about a character–a troubled past, a fear of heights, a need for glasses–but that’s just the “what.” But what I need even more, and what takes more time to percolate, is the “why.”

The protagonist of my new novel is a journalist, a young woman who is excited to be doing what she loves, but is fearful of the precarious financial condition of most contemporary newspapers. The paper’s staff consolidation in the face of bankruptcy gives her opportunities that she wouldn’t have otherwise as part of the shrinking staff, but also makes her mindful of the uncertainty of her new position. But this is a thriller. To borrow from the film This is Spinal Tap, you turn it up to 11.

So it’s not that my character fears for her economic stability, it’s that she fears ending up living in her car again, her young child freezing along with her. When my writer wife suggested that my protagonist needed an 11 year old son, what had been a few weeks of writer’s block broke instantly free.

The “what” was my plot, but the “why” gave me my story, cranking up the stakes, adding urgency and poignancy to my protagonist’s situation. It also created a whole range of additional stressors to her life, from the mundane need for lunch money, to the fact that threats on her life also threatened her son.

Until I’d given her a son, I didn’t really know why my character did what she did. Now I did, and she, and my readers, will have more to care about, more to root for, more to fear. Now it’s becoming a thriller.

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