Uncategorized, Writing Tips

Get to the Why: Tips for Authentically Discovering Your Characters and Their World

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The best stories will tell strive to answer the following question: why? You can who, what, where, and when all day long, but without the why to tie it all together, you don’t have much. It may be abstract, or it not be the answer we’re looking for as readers, but there it is. Of course, some stories are so po-mo and disjointed that you could argue that the why is that there is no why. But even if you’re writing that kind of story, you may still want to strive for the why, just for fun. Here’s how.

Just kidding. We all know the why is elusive. I can’t tell you how to find it. But here are some fun exercises to start:

  1. Pretend that you’re a character in your story. Now, you have a gun pointed at your head, and your assailant is asking you to write a joke on a sticky note. It doesn’t need to be a joke that you think is funny. But your character should think it’s funny. Or, your character should think that their would-be-killer thinks it’s funny. So meta. Also, you can take as much time as you need because you don’t actually have a gun pointed at your head. Sorry if this exercise is triggering (I seriously did not intend that pun), but I just wanted to make writing seem high-stakes.
  2. When you’re feeling uninspired, do some research. Learn about the places your story takes place in, read a book your character would read, or Google something obscure related to a character’s day job. Call it research, self-improvement, or… the Dunning-Kruger effect? It’s probably going to help down the line.
  3. Embrace false starts. Today, you may be congratulating yourself for finally starting your project. Tomorrow, you may delete every word you’ve written. Don’t do that. Instead, play the devil’s advocate for your work, no matter how bad you think it is. What, specifically, about the work is “bad?” Does it need to be shortened or lengthened? Is there too much or too little context for certain events? Is the dialogue boring? Does it parrot common stereotypes? Answers to these questions are always helpful when you’re thinking about what directions you do want to go in. And ask yourself another question: is there anything I can salvage, repurpose, or re-invent?

I hope that trying these exercises and finding other ways to fully engage with your work will improve your writing. My final piece of advice: have some fun. If there’s a subject you want to try, a style you want to emulate, a crazy idea you had in the shower that you want to bring to life, then DO IT. This is supposed to be a blast. We’re writing fiction, not trying to find the cure for cancer. There’s simply no reason to hold back.

Photo by Ash Valiente from Pexels