Constructing characters – who, what, how, and why?

The Spire, a masterful study in constructing characters.
The Spire, a masterful study in constructing characters.

As writers we are constantly engaged in constructing characters who hurt, desire and dream. We try to imbue them with deep passions and a need to achieve their goals at any cost. We try to write characters who are complex, multi-layered.

But how do we achieve this, practically? In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Dr. Linda Seger suggests that we start by asking the following questions: Who is the character? What does the character want? Why does the character want it? How does the character get it?

One way to discover a character’s personality is to interrogate her.

Who is the the character? Is she shy, reclusive? Happy-go-lucky or introverted? Reliable and honest?

What does she want and how far will she go to get it? This is the external aspect of character – one tied to the external goal.

Why is the character driven? What is the psychology behind the need?

How does she get what she want? Is she a ruthless go-getter who stops at nothing – persuading, threatening, manipulating, or does she achieve her goals through kindness, by example, through wisdom and intelligence?

“A key to constructing characters is to ask questions that drill down to the defining aspects of identity and personality.”

In The Spire, (who) Jocelin, Dean of the Cathedral, (what) is obsessed with erecting a 404 foot tall spire (why) because he believes he has been chosen for this task to bring the people of the town closer to God. The project (how) is funded by his aunt, Lady Alison, a mistress  of the former King. But Jocelin’s plans fly against the advice of many, especially the master builder, Roger Mason, who believes the cathedral’s foundation cannot take the added weight. As the novel unfolds we learn that the project has more to do with Jocelin’s unyielding will than his desire to exalt his people by glorifying God through the building of the spire.

Characters are also aided or impeded by their values – their sense of justice, love, compassion, the belief that reconciliation is the only way to meet death without regret. A sympathetic character’s values will always be positive. 

But antagonists too believe they have values. The difference is that their view is subjective. A typical protagonist, by contrast, displays a more objective value system shared by the reader or audience. Interestingly, we get the most out of our characters by creating tension between their obsession and their value system. This is because inner conflict makes for absorbing stories. 


Ask the who, what, how, and why questions before embarking on constructing characters. The answers will help you write a more convincing story.

Click on this LINK to view my new YouTube video on how to create emotion in writing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *