Asking the 5 Whys for More Convincing Story Characters

Photo © 2005 e-magic CC BY-ND 2.0

A scenario: Your intimate love of 11 years arrives home one day and says, out of the blue, that he’s quit his job and enrolled in culinary school. Your first reaction is, naturally, “We need to make an appointment to talk to your doctor, Dear. I think your medication is producing some unexpected side-effects.”

No, seriously, your first reaction is to stare nonplussed for a moment, then to say, “Why?! Why would you have done something like this without talking to me about it first?”

Another scenario: In order to help fit in with your new coworkers, at your new job, you meet one of them for a drink after work. She orders a whiskey sour, and before taking the first sip, she snaps her fingers and caws like a crow. The natural question that of course comes to mind is: Why?

“Well,” she explains, “that’s just a little ritual I have to memorialize my father.”

“I’m sorry,” you say. “When did he die?”

“Oh, he’s not dead! He’s just passed on.”

Now, a whole stream of questions assault your consciousness: What do you mean he’s “passed on”? Why do you memorialize him? Why is this particular ritual so important? Why did it make such an impact on you? Why didn’t you adopt a less distressing ritual?

The same sorts of questions occur to a reader, when she reads your story.

The Five Whys

The 5 Whys was originally developed as a way to find the root cause of some defect or problem. Wikipedia gives an example:

My car will not start. (the problem)

Why? The battery is dead. (first why)

Why? The alternator is not functioning. (second why)

Why? The alternator belt has broken. (third why)

Why? The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and has never been replaced. (fourth why)

Why? I have not been maintaining my car according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, a root cause)

I will start maintaining my car according to the recommended service schedule. (solution)

As it turns out, however, the 5 Whys are a poor method to use in finding the root cause of a problem, because they really just reiterate what an expert would intuit. If you took the above car to a mechanic, he would tell you the exact same solution without ever asking the above questions. On the other hand, if you don’t have any mechanical expertise, you would be unable to answer most of them. (Alternator belt? What’s that?) So the 5 Whys doesn’t help you beyond your existing area of expertise, and studies reaffirm that result. There are other, much better methods that analysts use to determine root causes, which don’t necessarily require expertise in the problem area.

Asking “Why?” for Characterization

So the 5 Whys are not useful for root-cause analysis, their original purpose. But as it turns out they can be quite useful to help you—the storytelling expert—flesh out your fictional characters. Or at the least the concept of the 5 Whys can help, that you should ask “Why?” until you get a complete answer.

Whenever your character takes any action, makes any statement, or ignores any obvious way out of a jam, ask yourself “Why did she do that?” Whatever answer you get, ask yourself, “Why?” Repeat like a little kid does, until you’ve gotten to the bottom of her character.

So…

Why does she drink whiskey sours and snap her fingers and caw like a crow?

Because her father drank whiskey sours, and he snapped his fingers to get her attention or to scold her, and they lived on a farm where crows were always nearby.

Why does she memorialize her father if he’s not dead?

Because when he threw her out, she promised herself that he was dead to her.

Then why does she not want to forget him?

Because that would make her feel even worse. So she’s adopted this ritual to ease her conscience.

But why does the ritual ease her conscience

Because she has missed the trappings of her childhood home—even though they weren’t all milk and honey—and this makes her feel empty.

Why does she feel empty without the trappings of her childhood home?

… and so forth.

(Actually, say some psychologists, you should ask “Why?” until the answer is, “Because it makes her feel better about herself.” That’s the ultimate root cause of every choice we make.)

Note that the character herself doesn’t necessarily need to understand or be able to put into words the answer to “Why?” But you the author should be able to.

Two Ways to Satisfy the Reader

Whenever your character does something unexpected, the reader will begin searching instinctively for a reason why. You have two options:

  1. Tell the reader why: the narrator explains it to the reader, or the character explains it to another character, or to herself in an internal monologue.
  2. Let the reader figure it out: all the reasons are readily visible in the forefront, making it obvious to the reader, even if the character is denying it to herself.

This is particularly important whenever a character does something out of character for her, because out-of-character behaviors indicate that something has changed with the character. So when the heroine begins behaving strangely toward the hero, we wonder whether she’s developing feelings for him. Or when she suddenly agrees to a date from that guy she would never be seen dead with, we know she’s reconsidering her dating strategy, for some reason or another.

Always Include the “Why?”

When you’re first introducing your character, you can make her with almost any personality that fits her. The character starts out as an unknown, a blank slate, and everything she does causes me to ask “Why?” Even if I can’t put the answers into words, they sketch out in my mind an image of her personality. I begin to feel like I know her, like I can predict how she will react. Events and circumstances push her—quite understandably—further and further into distress. It’s not the events and circumstances so much as her reaction to them that matters.

She finally reaches a turning point, where she is able to take a different path, to try something that formerly made no sense for her because it was so out of character. And I ask, “Why did she do that?” Hopefully the answer is obvious, because the story’s been building up to that point, building the foundation for that character change.

I’ve read a number of stories that short-circuit the “Why?” of their characters. In an early story of mine, I remember doing so as well. I don’t remember which story it was, but I do remember being critiqued on it. My critique partner told me that she didn’t understand why the character did a certain thing at a certain point. I blew a fuse: I can make my characters anything I like, and it’s up to her to accept them the way they are. (You may argue with that, and many readers do, but I maintain that it’s up to the reader to understand the characters, not the other way around.) But my critique partner persisted, explained that I had shown the character with one personality one moment, a different personality the next, inconsistent. I eventually realized that inconsistencies need to be explained, either implicitly by the context of the story or expressly through words and actions.

If you leave out the “Why?” you’ll end up with flat, unconvincing characters, who seem to be doing whatever the writer wants, just so that the story will work out a certain way. On the other hand, exploring the “Why?” will make it much easier to write stories that are about something bigger than the story itself, because they’ll be about the human condition. So always remember to include the “Why?”

-TimK

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