If you’ve ever spent a good amount of time around a young child, you’ve probably heard the infamous question, “Why?”
Why is the sky blue? Why can’t I touch that? Why can’t I have chocolate now?
Young children ask these kinds of questions a lot. Why? Because they’re learning about the world around them and they want to know more about it. So what does this have to do with writing? Surprisingly, quite a lot actually, especially if you’re working on a story that involves a lot of world building, or is set in an alternate reality. Just like a young child learning about their own world, your readers are being introduced into a completely new world and they want to know more about it.
What really does happen when you touch that? Perhaps you have a giant pink flower that grows close to the ground and when you touch it, you become paralyzed! Well why do you become paralyzed? Is it because the flower is a carnivorous plant and now that you’re stuck to it like glue, it’s going to slowly digest you? Or perhaps it’s because the flower is actually a conscious being and it’s so terribly lonely that it’s willing to imprison you for the rest of eternity just so it isn't so alone.
Another factor, though maybe not as relevant to consider, is why does this flower grow so low to the ground instead of way up in the sky? Does it not like catching birds? Perhaps they don’t taste good or they are just terrible conversationalists with all that screeching and squawking. You could even go as far as to say why is it pink? Or why doesn’t it talk if its conscious? Before you know it, this flower has a backstory and its name is Lila. She was one of five seed pods, but now she’s cursed never to speak again, so her conversations are all one sided with the poor victims she’s ensnared along the way.
Remember though, that you only want to share what’s actually relevant to the story, so since she can’t tell you she had siblings, you should probably just leave them off the page for now and share about them later in a short story or in the extra features you post on your website for those die hard fans that can’t get enough of your stories. ;)
One of the most important places to ask “Why?” is in your character development. This will really help not only define who these people we’re reading about are, but also why they are that way, and how they are likely to act/react because of this. For example, there are two slaves in a medieval market place. Both are young women and they are both sold to a wealthy slave owner. One slave girl—let’s call her Rosa—is delighted, but the other girl—Cora, is terrified. Your first question should be, “Why?” Why is Rosa delighted, and Cora nearly sick to her stomach with worry? The answer lies in their backstory. Perhaps Rosa used to come from a farming family and she knows that if she can win her new master’s trust, she can escape at just the right time back to her family’s farm and hide there until it’s safe to travel further away, where no one will suspect she’s a runaway slave. That seems like a perfectly reasonable reason to be happy about the sale, but what about Cora? Cora has lived a very different life and where Rosa sees a potential escape possibility, Cora sees a potential for punishment. Why? Maybe when she was a girl, she tried to steal her father’s horse to sneak away and meet a boy she thought she was in love with, but she got caught and her father beat her for it. She never entertained another rebellious thought again and so where one girl sees a window of opportunity, all Cora really sees is a potential to get beaten or maybe even sold into a worse situation.
Why does one character choose one thing versus something else? Only you can answer that question but remember to also ask what motivates them? Why does it motivate them? Why is that important? If you can't answer these questions, then you might need to go back and take a closer look at their backstories. These are all questions that will help you get to the bottom of that character that you just couldn’t quite figure out and before you know it, your characters just might be writing that story for you! J