The Who, What, How, and Why of Characters

Complex CharactersAS WRITERS we set out to fashion memorable characters – driven characters who ache, desire and dream. We seek to create characters who are passionate about something and will do anything to achieve it. Characters who are assembled from multiple layers.

But how do we begin to access these layers? In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Dr. Linda Seger suggests 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?

Questioning Your Characters

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

What: 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 story goal.

How: How does she get what she wants? 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?

Why: Why is a character driven? What is the psychology behind his need? In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the protagonist is obsessed with undoing an event in the past that claimed the life of his wife for which he blames himself. His psychological scar is so deep that all his actions are channeled through it. The search for transcendence – a major theme in the story, feeds off this obsession.

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

But even an antagonist, generally loaded with anti-social behaviour views herself as having values – but that view is subjective. The typical protagonist, by contrast, espouses a more acceptable value system. Interestingly, we get the most bang for our character’s buck when we create a tension between the obsession of a character and his value system. The resulting inner conflict makes for absorbing stories.


Ask the who, what, how, and why of characters to help you craft deep and convincing people for your screenplays or novels.

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