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Why, Why, Why? Interrogating Characters About Their Motivations

Photo by Ksayer1

Do you remember that news clip of US figure skater Nancy Kerrigan’s long, drawn-out “Whyyyyy? Whyyyyy? Whyyyyy?” after a hired assailant bashed her across the knee right before the US Figure Skating Championship that would determine the 1994 Olympic team?

Media outlets played the wailing clip over and over and over. Before the Olympics, during the Olympics, and after the Olympics. Like Nancy, we all wanted to know why, why, why would someone attack her like that?

Facts started emerging. The who, what, where, and when came to light within days. The ex-husband of rival skater Tonya Harding had hired two men to injure Nancy. We knew what happened. But don’t all athletes want to win? What made this particular rivalry so intense it resulted in violence?

We needed to know why, why, why.

I’m thinking about this ice skating drama right now as I work on my second novel manuscript. I’m trying to understand why my characters are doing what they are doing—not just the obvious answer to why, but the deeper, less apparent (often complicated) reasons.

In search of answers, I signed up for an online class run by the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers about conflict. I wanted to dig into the sources (and potential sources) of conflict I wasn’t utilizing. The instructor Sharon Mignerey posted a lesson that challenged us to think of a scene in our novel and ask why the character did what they did. She asked us to write out the answer, then ask why of that answer. Write out that second answer and dig a layer deeper. Why, why, why?

The why is what keeps us interested. The more why’s we can answer, the closer we get to the heart of the conflict.

I’ll give you an example of how this exercise works. When I was little, the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears always bothered me. I couldn’t get past the idea that this child just walked right into the bears’ home without permission. Why? Bear with me as I take a few liberties with the story and see if we can dig deeper into Goldilocks’ possible motivations.

Let’s consider a moment of conflict in the story:

Why is Goldilocks scared when the Three Bears wake her from her nap?
Because they are screaming at her.
Because she entered their home without permission, broke their furniture, and ate their food.
No one was home, and the door was unlocked, so she walked in.
Goldilocks assumes that everything is there for her to enjoy and consume.
Because she has been raised with a lot of white privilege and always gotten everything she has ever wanted without having to work for it.
Because her over-protective parents have dedicated their lives to making sure their little Goldilocks has a perfect, worry-free life.
Because they grew up poor and didn’t want their baby girl to have to struggle the way they did.
Because they don’t recognize that much of what they’ve accomplished in life was the result of trying, failing, and learning from their mistakes, and that by robbing their precious daughter of the same learning opportunities, they have doomed her to become an unrepentant, entitled, home invader who will be in jail by the time she is twenty.

I didn’t change the plot, but I inserted motivations that make me think differently about this story now.

Doing this exercise with my own novel-in-progress cracked open the motivations behind some of the conflicts my main character wrestles with. I started with the opening scene in my book and followed the why trail to a new truth about my MC.

Why does my character keep so many secrets from the people closest to her?
She doesn’t want them asking questions about her past.
She is crippled by guilt over something she did as a child and never told anyone about.
Why didn’t she tell anyone?
She didn’t want her father to find out.
He would have been disappointed in her.
Why does it still bother her if it happened so long ago?
Her father died years later, and she never apologized to him.

It made me realize that my character is haunted more by the fact that she was never able to confess her misdeed than she is by the misdeed itself. Knowing this information about my character helps me move her through not just this scene, but the whole book. The better I understand my MC and her motivations, the more honest and true I can be to her character. The more faithful I am to her character, the more readers will believe in her and trust me as the author.

Let’s return to Nancy and Tonya for a minute. This story played out on the news in January 1994, but a documentary about the incident premiered with much fanfare at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Twenty-five years later, and people still what to understand the nuances of why, why, why?

Why did Tonya Harding’s ex-husband pay for someone to attack Nancy Kerrigan?
So Nancy wouldn’t be able to compete for a spot on the US Olympic team.
Without Nancy in the competition, Tonya stood a better chance at making the Olympic team, winning an Olympic medal, and earning a lot of money in endorsements.
But why Nancy?
The media had anointed Nancy—Tonya’s biggest rival—as America’s Sweetheart and depicted Tonya as a girl from a trailer park.
Tonya came off as rougher around the edges than Nancy.
Tonya had a more difficult childhood and had to scrap and fight for everything she had, including the expense of training for the Olympics. This was her shot.

The most intriguing elements of a story, whether in fiction or real life, usually aren’t the facts of what happened—but why it happened. Why would a child break into a family’s home, eat their food, and trash the place? Why would someone brutally attack an Olympic hopeful?

Go deeper. Then deeper still. People are complex. In most cases, they are motivated by more than one thing at a time.

Let’s look at Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:

Why does 11-year-old Harry risk his life to go after the Sorcerer’s Stone?
To prevent an evil wizard from getting the stone.
The wizard wants to use the stone to return from his half-dead state and kill Harry (among other evil plans.)
Because Harry is the only person who has ever survived an attack from this wizard, and the egomaniacal wizard wants to finish the job.
Because if Harry lives, it is an affront to the wizard’s power.
Because the strength of Harry’s parents’ love shielded him from the wizard’s attack that killed Harry’s mother and father, proving love is stronger than evil.
Why does that matter?
Because getting the stone and thwarting the evil wizard would mean that Harry’s parents didn’t die in vain and that Harry is worthy of their love and sacrifice (as opposed being an unwanted orphan forced to live in a cabinet under his cruel aunt and uncle’s stairs.)

Take a look at your own work-in-progress and dig deep. Ask your characters why. But don’t let them off the hook with the first answer. Push them until they squirm. Corner them, shine a bright light into their eyes, and don’t give up until they answer why, why, why?

Sharon Mignerey’s technique for peeling back the layers of motivation helped me break through a stubborn writing barrier. Her exercise reminds me of Donald Maass’ advice to look beyond a character’s primary emotion (the most obvious or expected emotion) and search for the second- and third-level emotions the character is feeling. Do you have any other tips for mining our WIPs for deeper meaning and complex emotion? Please share in the comments. I’m still revising and could use all the help I can get!

About Julie Carrick Dalton [2]

Julie Carrick Dalton [3] is a writer who farms. Or maybe she is a farmer who writes. It depends on which day you catch her. Her debut novel WAITING FOR THE NIGHT SONG is forthcoming from Forge Books (Macmillan) in January 2021, with her second novel, THE LAST BEEKEEPER, following a year later. WAITING FOR THE NIGHT SONG won the William Faulkner Literary Competition, The Writers’ League of Texas Award, and was a finalist for the Caledonia Novel Award. Julie is passionate about literature that engages climate science and is a frequent speaker on the topic of Climate Fiction. Originally from Annapolis, MD, (and a military base in Germany,) Julie is a graduate of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator, a year-long, MFA-level novel intensive. She also holds a Master’s in Creative Writing and Literature from Harvard Extension School. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, BusinessWeek, Inc. Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Electric Literature, and other publications. She is represented by Stacy Testa at Writers House and Addison Duffy at United Talent Agency (for film rights.) Julie also owns and operates a 100-acre farm in rural New Hampshire. When she isn’t writing, you can usually find her skiing, kayaking, trying to keep up with her four kids and two dogs, cooking vegetarian food, or digging in the dirt.