ROBERT ROTH

Storytelling: Don’t Forget The Why

by Nov 2, 2020Blog, Characters, Writing Tips

One of the keys to writing an excellent story is to fill it with fascinating characters doing interesting things–the who and the what. But one of the easiest ways to write a boring story is to ignore the why. Why are those things happening, and, more importantly, why did the characters make those choices? Nothing breaks my immersion faster than a character acting out of character, so to speak. I care about the characters in the stories I read, and I usually gravitate toward authors who care about their characters, too.

So, when you’re writing, I ask you to do the same.

Think about your character and their motivations. Get to know them, and why they make certain choices. Do they tend to shy away from conflict or rush toward it? Why? Are they funny, or are they grim? Why? Are they a goody-two-shoes or a rogue? Why? Because, dear writer, it’s when you can answer those questions that you’ll start writing good stories.

In one of my projects, I had a chapter that I struggled with for a long time. I knew what happened leading up to it, and I knew where I wanted to go after it. But I didn’t know how to bridge that gap. I kept at it, though, and finally wrote a chapter the neatly joined the two surrounding it, filled with action and intrigue, and advancing the plot well. My only problem? It fit the story, but it didn’t fit the characters. I had them making choices and taking actions that went against their nature.

One of the main characters of that chapter was a roguish hero whose mission and purpose was to stand as a defender of his people. That mission sometimes forced him to make difficult choices, especially when balancing an individual’s needs against the greater good. And he didn’t like killing, not if he didn’t have to. Yet, I’d just written about him as if he were a video-game demi-god, slaughtering his opponents with abandon and then moving on as if nothing had happened. He was acting in service to the plot, and it was apparent.

Illustration of a book lover
Fascinating characters doing interesting things

A more subtle example involves a different character in that same project. At one point in that story, the character mentions that he’s an Aries, and explains how that impacts his decisions. A kind test reader pointed out that it seemed out of character for them to say those things, since that character was otherwise very analytical, and tended to fall back on logic and reason for his problem-solving. And that reader was entirely correct. There’s nothing wrong with astrology. It’s just that it wasn’t believable for that character to care about it.

I’m not suggesting that characters should never act against their nature. People do that all the time, making questionable decisions, and taking actions that don’t seem to make sense. But it should still be clear why they’ve done that. Maybe they don’t have all the information they need to make a different choice. Perhaps it’s a moment of crisis for them, and they’re acting irrationally as a result. It could even be a moment of growth for them, as they overcome a challenge or learn a lesson.

And don’t forget about your villains. As I wrote before, antagonists should have some morality. Unless they’re a one-dimensional children’s anime villain, they’ll rarely believe what they’re doing is wrong, and will likely have a moral justification for what they’re doing. Maybe they were brought up that way. Perhaps they’re defending a way of life. Even if they’re just hateful, racist, ignorant, misogynists, there’s a reason why they turned out that way.

Think about your favorite characters and stories, and what makes them so? And when you’re struggling to advance your plot, try falling back on your characters, and how they would respond to the situations you’ve placed them in. You’ll be surprised at how that can pull even the most challenging knot apart.

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