Posts Tagged ‘creative writing’

The Five Whys

Introduction

I’ve been helping a friend of mine add some depth to his roleplaying character in SWTOR. I thought it might be nice for others who follow my gaming stuff if I shared a technique that I’ve found to be very helpful when I’m trying to flesh out what is behind my characters.

I call it “The 5 Why’s”. The goal of the exercise is to explore the psyche and motivations of your character. Along the way you may define some events that occurred that may (or may not) be fleshed out as part of their backstory.

While, technically, you can do this yourself, sometimes it helps to have someone else asking the questions. The reason being that we tend to focus our efforts on things we know how to answer. When someone else is asking the questions, it can force us to go down a path we hadn’t considered.

I first started doing stuff like this with my main characters in stories after I read an interview with Anne Mcafferry. The interviewer asked her why her characters seemed so “alive”, she answered (paraphrasing…)

Because I know them so well. I spend a lot of time exploring things like the motivation for my characters. If you ask me what Masterharper Robinton has in the 3rd drawer of his desk, I can tell you. Not because I’ve written down all the notes about how he stocks his office. But because I know him so well that I know what he would keep in his desk.

This is how I tend to roleplay in MMOs. I don’t necessarily write down all the details about the backstory for my characters. But I know who they are well enough that if someone asks, I can tell you what their parents did for a living, etc. I don’t have to wonder how they would react in a situation, I know them well enough that whatever reaction I come up with is likely to fit within their personality.

The Approach

Start with a particular topic or personality aspect. Say your character wants to protect the innocent. Or wants to rise to power with the Sith Empire. Or is striving to be the best long rifle shot in the galaxy.

Then ask “Why do they want to do this?”

When you have the answer, pick a part of that answer and ask “Why do they…” and keep going until you’ve hit 5 “Why’s” or until you decide there isn’t anything more, it is a core attribute.

An Example

For example, I have an Twi’lek Assassin named Claressa. She is one of the most stone cold killers I’ve ever played. She scares me a little. But what if someone were to ask Claressa:

1) Why are you so casual about killing?
A: Because if you aren’t strong enough to beat me, then you’re not worthy of life.

2) Why aren’t they worthy?
A: Life is a gift which must be defended.

3) Why should someone be able to defend themselves?
A: If they can’t defend their self, then they won’t be able to defend others.

4) Why should they defend others?
A: Someone might be relying on them for protection.

5) Why does it matter if someone is relying on them?
A: When they fail, they betray that trust. By culling those too weak, I save those poor fools from the betrayal I felt when my parents failed me!

To me, Claressa is much more interesting as a character when one understands that she is willing to kill whomever she needs to because she believes she is protecting the innocents around that person who might be trusting them for protection. It also exposes a core issue for Claressa. The death of her parents affected her in a very foundational way.

Trying it Out

Find someone you think can help you. I really think you get the most out of this by having someone else ask you the questions. Give them an overview of who your character is. And let them start asking. You can do this exercise multiple times if you’d like as the questions can vary.

If you’re the one asking the questions, don’t ask the obvious ones. 🙂 In my example above, the better Why #3 would have been about life being a gift. The path that was chosen was one that I knew pretty well already.

Remember that the goal is to understand your character’s personality and world view. Not to write a lot of backstory. If you’re doing this via email or chat, try to keep answers short. The hope will be that at the end you’ll have discovered something about your character’s motivation and (perhaps) have some new area to write about when crafting their backstory.