How do you really get to know people? It’s not by asking “what”- it’s by asking “why”.
Why do you play hockey?
Why do you work there?
Why are you excited about this?
These questions, at least for me, feel very negative. I’m the unfortunately suspicious sort who thinks that these questions means that the asker is questioning my motives and accusing me of making a bad decision in doing what I do. But let’s not take those questions that way; read them as if the person asking sincerely cares about you and is interested in getting to know you:
Why are you interested in writing?
Why are you going for that college degree?
Why are you looking into joining the club?
These questions feel very invasive to me- and they may feel so to you. Motives are incredibly personal; we really care about them, but we doubt others really care about them. We often assume our bosses don’t care why we work for them, just that we do a good job; we often assume our readers don’t care why we write, just that they like our writing; we often assume that our reasons are either obvious or unimportant to other people.
But acceptance regardless of your answers- that’s incredibly helpful and results in an incredible feeling of safety and connection. Most of the times I’ve felt hurt by people are because they assumed that they understood or didn’t ask about the “why”; the “why” is that part of us that is truly deep, that really bares who we are at our core.
(Don’t worry, I’m going to tie this back around to writing soon. Just hang on for a minute so you can get the full point:)
I’ll answer some “why” questions to show you how much this exposes who I am:
Why do you write? Because I want to give people strength through my stories to face the rest of their life.
Why are you writing for the Writer’s Lounge? To my chagrin, it’s because I want to build a following for my own work… I’d rather that motive be because I want to help others. (The “why” question gets to our hearts, and to pieces we don’t always like. So my instinct is to get defensive; but I’ll do my best to tell the truth.)
Why do you want to build a following for your own work? Because I want to help people and the bigger the following I have, the more people I believe I can help. So I guess writing for the Writer’s Lounge goes back to helping people, when I go to the core of my motive.
Why do you want to help people? It’s a core trait of who I am that I see passed down through my family. I think that sounds strange; but I always feel much better helping others than I do working for myself. But even when I don’t feel good helping others, I feel a sense of duty to help others that pushes me forward.
You’ve just learned a lot about me. Whereas if we had just followed the question “what”, we might have learned this:
What do you do? I’m a speaker and writer for comics, books, kinetic novels, and more. I also create blog posts for the Writer’s Lounge.
What types of blog posts do you write? I write Tip Zone blog posts.
What is your favorite color? Orange.
You learned facts about me from “what”; you learned about my soul from “why”.
We need to ask “why” of our characters.
Usually a short character description looks like this:
“Dan is an adventurer who is often shunned for being a half-elf. He is the shame of his family for taking on axe-wielding, which he picked up from his childhood dwarven friends who he hung out with all the time. He’s rambunctious and a joker but takes what other people say very seriously- even though he pretends he doesn’t.”
The statement above is a great place to start. Yes, it answers the “what” and not much of the “why”- but the “what” isn’t bad. You just can’t end with the “what” and expect to understand the depths of your character.
Let’s break this down and ask “why” about each section:
Why is his name Dan? Dan’s parents were raised in a city that was destroyed by the Dark Lord; the name of that city was Dan. His parents named their son Dan in honor of the city and to keep the memory of it.
(Don’t be afraid of asking too specific of a “why” question or to ask one where the question isn’t obvious. Asking why a character was given their name is a great question to ask, even if the answer is just because their parents liked it.)
“…is an adventurer…” (note the emphasis on “is”)
Why is he an adventurer right now? He’s very uncomfortable around others but has found that if he can get supplies or materials for others, they don’t care much about his appearances. He takes on difficult jobs, but he’s found he can make some good money on them right now. As a bonus, his strange heritage and axe-wielding helps a lot of people remember him, which is good for business. He’s not doing well financially right now, so every way to make money is good.
“…is an adventurer…”
Why is he an adventurer? He grew up hearing stories about travelers and adventurers. His dwarven friends got axes at the early age of 4 (like all dwarves do), and Dan had the opportunity to play with them. They played a lot and practiced a lot with their axes, so Dan grew up very comfortable with using them. (His parents would have freaked out if they discovered Dan played with axes at the age of 5; so this was kept a secret by Dan and his friends.) They played games with their axes where they pretended to be on adventures, fighting trolls and whatnot, and he grew attached to the idea and held onto it as he grew older.
We can also branch off the above paragraph (and not just the initial character description) to learn more:
“(His parents would have freaked out if they discovered Dan played with axes at the age of 5…”
Why would his parents have freaked out? For one, because Dan would have been a 5-year-old playing with an axe. But they were also terrified about what happened to their city growing up; they didn’t want their son to grow up to be a warrior. Their reaction to what happened was to stay as far away from war, fighting, and violence as possible- and they didn’t want Dan stepping into that.
You can ask the “why” question for as long as you want and reaching out as far as you want.
Note that some questions’ answers might just be that the character has a core personality trait:
Why is Dan rambunctious? That’s just a core personality trait. He has tons of energy, and even though his parents thought when he got older he would mellow out, that never happened- he seemed to become more energetic, in fact, as he embraced that part of himself. He has tons of energy, and he takes great care of his body through a rigorous workout, so he’s only gotten more energy over time.
Know your characters by asking “why”. Don’t stop at the what- the facts- but continue through to understanding their motives, the core of who they are, the core that can be overlooked. You know that “why” matters for you; you’ve surely said before “that’s not what I meant!” If only they understood why, they would see you differently… so be sure to ask “why” of others.