Your Character’s Why — It’s Everything. Here’s Why. And How… by Beth Barany

“Why do I need to know everything about my character?” my client asked.

“You don’t need to know everything. Just the important bits!” I said.

Let me explain…

The other day I was in an editing consultation with one of my clients.

I had read and commented on her 20 pages ahead of time.

In our consultation, I called her attention to where the story seemed disjointed. She agreed with me, but didn’t know exactly what was wrong. So we looked at it together.

I realized that the short backstory she shared didn’t connect with the theme the main character was focused on.

We brainstormed on the core problem. And I realized that this problem was showing up all over her 20 pages.

She had not clarified for herself why her character was acting the way he was acting and why certain things were important to him.

Ultimately, so many of the characteristics of this character were beautifully portrayed — his humor, his drive, his quirky behaviors — but there seemed to be some mismatch between his current actions and his origins.

As this was a paranormal story, drawn from snippets of human folklore, she could customize this character’s origin story and evolution however she wanted.

What was missing was a deep understanding of her character’s motivation.

When we know why your character acts or feels a certain way, or thinks or says something, then we really “get them.” Then we feel connected to them — whether we like the character or not. Even an unlikeable character can be relatable.

When we feel connected to a character in a story, we are “in” the story and don’t want to leave. And we’re willing to go wherever the story and the character takes us.

The hard work for her was digging into the character’s backstory to understand clarify what actions the character had taken in the past and why he had taken them.

Once we had this discussion and she took copious notes, she seemed confident and calm that she knew how to discover and uncover these bits of missing backstory so that the pages would read powerfully and coherently.

She also remembered that she had written backstory on this character years ago and that reading it would help her connect the dots.

Once she clarified for herself the why of her character, then she could convey it clearly and the reader would understand this character fully.

Then the reader would have a seamless reading experience. And that’s what we all want.

If you are wondering how to discover your characters’ deep motivation, I have an exercise for you, drawn from my character development class.

A note: I use this exercise when I’m planning my novel, but I really get deep with my characters when I’m in revisions, like my client is doing. So you can use this exercise at the novel planning stage, and in the editing and revising stage. Or anytime you’re stuck in the writing process. (You can even use it on yourself!)

Another note: This exercise I share below is drawn from my training in NLP to become a Master NLP Practitioner. I adapted it to help me and you become better fiction writers, get deeper into character, and get to know your character better, so that you can write powerful characters and stories readers fall in love with.

EXERCISE: Your character’s deep why in two parts

Part 1: State the motivation for your character’s goal.

For the purposes of this exercise, use whatever goal comes to mind, whether it’s an inner goal (a desire to feel a certain way or think a certain way, have a certain inner experience) or an outer goal (tangible, external to the character, something everyone can see/hear/observe in some way.)

Example: In my YA fantasy, Henrietta The Dragon Slayer (Book 1), Henrietta wants to save her mentor, who is sick. This is her outer goal.

Part 2: Go Deeper.

Here’s how.

Ask your character, in relation to their goal, “What will having this do for you?”

Ask this a few times to get to the heart of the matter. Often you’ll feel a sense of rightness in your body when you’ve settled into the deepest answer.

To do this exercise, I recommend writing it. You can also do it in a meditative, day dreaming state without writing.

Interview your character for their answers.

Example: In my YA fantasy, Henrietta The Dragon Slayer (Book 1), Henrietta wants to save her ailing mentor.

Henrietta, what will having that do for you?

— I’ll do be right by him.

And what will having that do for you?

— I’ll feel absolved of my bad behavior.

And what will having that do for you?

— I’ll find some inner peace.

And what will having that do for you?

… Beth says: This feels done, like we arrived at the heart of the matter.

Now your turn. Get clear on your character’s goal and then ask them, “What will having that do for you?” multiple times until you get to the heart of the matter.

Next Steps

Now that you know your characters’s deep motivation, ask yourself how this can be revealed through their words, actions, and thoughts, at the beginning of the story, at the middle, and at the end, and in every scene.


Let me know if you have any questions about this exercise or about developing your character’s motivations.

And if you would like to go deeper into more character tips, check out the character class here:

Coaching and writing craft teaching — these are the core focuses of my work with writers.

There are several ways to work with me:

Sign up here for a complimentary one-on-one call to discuss which of these ways is right for you. I also offer customized programs, based on your needs. We can talk about that too.


BETH BARANY, CREATIVITY COACH FOR WRITERSA Master NLP Practitioner and certified creativity coach for writers, Beth runs Barany School of Fiction, a full suite of courses designed to help genre fiction writers experience clarity and get writing, so they can revise and proudly publish their novels to the delight of their readers.

Based in Oakland, California, Beth Barany has presented at Ithra Center (King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture) in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, at the Women’s Fiction Festival in Matera, Italy, at Romance Writers of America National Conference, at Emerald City Conference in Seattle, Washington, at the San Francisco Writers Conference, and at San Francisco Bay Area chapters of SCBWI, CWC, and RWA.

Award-winning novelist, Beth Barany writes magical tales of romance, mystery, and adventure that empower women and girls to be the heroes of their own lives.

She is the award-winning author of Henrietta The Dragon Slayer, the acclaimed paranormal romance author of the Touchstone series, and is proud to release her newest novels, science fiction mysteries about Janey McCallister space station investigator.

The first book in the series, Into The Black, is a Page Turner Awards ebook Finalist. She has also written books for writers, including Plan Your Novel Like A Pro, co-written with her husband, thriller writer Ezra Barany.


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