“I keep six honest serving-men,
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When,
And How and Where and Who”
- Rudyard Kipling
It’s disconcerting to discover you don’t know your characters as well as you thought you did.
My pantser approach is partly to blame. My characters take on a life of their own as I write. I tend to let them find their way through my first draft, learning who they are, and gently guiding them in the direction I want my story to go. Sometimes they go peacefully, but other times I have to drag them, kicking and screaming, to where they need to be.
It’s a learning journey for all of us.
If my characters are kicking and screaming, it usually means I’m not writing them true to their character. It means I need to revisit some basic writing tools to figure out where I’m going wrong. After all, I don’t like being forced to be someone I’m not – why should they?
Every journalism student learns the importance of the Five W’s and one H: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Many journalists firmly believe your story is not complete until you answer all six questions. They have a valid point; not answering any one of these questions can leave a gaping hole in your story. And the best part, from a writer-standpoint? None of the questions can be answered with a simple yes or no, which means you learn more about your characters by delving into their answers.
I like the way the Socrative Garden lays it out in this table:
As I tried to get to know my hero better, I did more than just ask him these questions. I asked other characters the same questions. Understanding how they perceived him, and therefore reacted to and with him throughout the story, was very helpful in revising his character.
Sometimes, my characters are kicking and screaming because they don’t want to admit something to themselves. I can’t blame them. None of us are perfect, but that doesn’t mean we like hearing that we have faults. Our psyches are easily bruised. But growing and changing is an important part of character arcs, so my character will need to toughen up. He needs to trust that I have his best interests at heart.
How do you react when you discover you don’t know enough about your characters? How do you flesh them out? Please share.