Asking “what” to aid effective character creation

what character creationAre you struggling to create focused characters in your writing? There’s a gem of advice in Syd Field’s classic screenwriting guide, Screenplay, that I feel is really worth dwelling on. It’s introduced mid-paragraph, almost an aside, but I think it’s something that can really help a lot of writers quickly and solidly create a character background. In its simplest form, the point is to ask what and not why when you’re exploring your character.

Why asking “what” is more helpful than “why” in character creation

Syd Field explained this nice and succinctly in his book:

What implies a specific response; if you ask yourself a question with beginning with the word why, you can get many different answers, and they may all be correct. So try to phrase any questions using the word what: What causes my character to react in this manner? (Not: Why does my character do this?) What is the purpose of this scene?

What makes this effective is that as the what questions require a very specific response they produce a practical answer. It becomes unequivocal, something that leaves less room for discussion and more opportunity to act. This is particularly important in screenplays.

Consider the train of thought that you could take after asking why of a character trait; whatever else it might offer, you’ll get bogged down in useless detail and can easily lose focus. Say, for example, we create a character who’s a cynical lawyer, and set out to answer Why did she become a lawyer? or Why is she so cynical?

The answers are likely to be broad and emotional. She’s cynical because she’s been betrayed before, because she’s seen too many cases unjustly ruled, because the political system’s failed her…hinting towards the meat of the information you need, but in a more general way that leaves a lot open to possibility. And when it comes to a scene of dialogue discussing her background, you suddenly have “It’s complicated.” Instead of a clearly defining moment.

Ask what of the same trait and you’ll get much focused response. The question What caused her to become some cynical? invites a single event. You’re less likely to answer in broad strokes. What did it? The one case that she really believed in and lost. And suddenly you have focus, and something you can use.

If the question came up in a story, what’s going to be more dramatic, having a character with a thousand different reasons for being the way they are, or one really indicative one?

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