Knowing the Why

I just spent 2 days working out (in my mind and on paper) why my secondary characters are doing (or have done) certain things.

My P.J. Benson Mysteries are all told in first person, so I can’t have scenes where the reader sees or hears what secondary characters are doing or thinking, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need to know what they’re doing or why. For my primary antagonist and for all of my important secondary characters, I need to know their goals and motivations.

The nice part of writing a story in first person is I can’t put backstory dumps into the book. No long paragraphs on how Mr. Grumpy had a miserable childhood, was bullied by bigger kids, is unliked by his coworkers, and that’s why he’s always in a grumpy mood.

Oh, I can get all of that information into the story, if it’s important, but it will have to come to P.J. either in dialogue from another character or from something she finds and reads.

In my WIP (work in progress), I have a woman in a bathroom talking on a cell phone and sounding scared. That’s what P.J. hears and when she asks what’s wrong, the woman doesn’t tell her. At this point, P.J. doesn’t know what’s up in this other character’s life, but I need to know. I need a reason why this woman received a text from someone threatening her. And I need to know why this other person is threatening her.

It doesn’t matter if your story is written in single pov or multiple, unless you’re content with cardboard or stereotypical characters, you need to get to know your characters personally. Most villains don’t go out and kill, rape, or kidnap just for the fun of it. And even if it is for fun, there’s a reason for that behavior. Something happened in that villain’s past that motivates this behavior. The writer must know and understand this motivation and it helps if at least a bit of that character’s past can be communicated to the reader. Not a lot. Not an info dump. Just enough information to make the character real, and in most stories, human.

For all of the main characters in my story, I create summaries of what they are doing (Goal) and why (Motivation). Usually these summaries aren’t very complex. They just include the essentials. And if, as I’m writing, I realize there’s even a stronger reason for the character’s actions, I can always add that to the summary.

Here, for example, are the goal and motivation of the woman in the bathroom..

Goal:
*Get out of debt
Motivation
*Left with a lot of debts incurred by her ex, debts that have caused her to lose her house and will soon cause her to lose the two horses she raised and trained

This woman is a minor character but she plays an important part in the plot, primarily because she’s willing to do anything to get out of debt. My hope is, as readers learn about her, this woman will be more than just a cardboard character.

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6 Responses to Knowing the Why

  1. Maris,

    I completely agree with you. I always create a character bible before I start to write a novel. Otherwise, I might get confused on description and even names. But what motivates different characters is very important.

    • Maris Soule says:

      You’re more efficient than I am, Jacqueline. I usually get started and then the light bulb goes off that reminds me I need to know why these secondary characters would do what they do.

  2. No doubt about it, motive matters. As I create my characters, I have to know “the why behind the what” to bring the story to life.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Irene, you’re so right about motive mattering. I hate hearing some writers say, “Oh, he’s just bad. That’s why he kills people.” I want to know why he decided to be bad rather than good.

  3. Molly MacRae says:

    I love this, Maris. You’ve explained some vital so well. Thanks!

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thank you, Molly. Great to hear from you. I miss seeing you at conferences, but we just don’t seem to be attending the same ones. I do follow all of your good news. Keep up the great writing.