Written by A Guest Author November 11th, 2021

Bringing Your Characters to Life Through the “Five Whys”

By Sarina Byron

Writing is a skill that brings all of life together. It is a skill where we pour all of our experiences, observations, hopes and beliefs into creating a story and characters that we hope will outlive us. We can all conjure up an imaginary person but how do we bring that imaginary person to life? What is the secret to creating a character that people get attached to? Well, the ‘What’ and the ‘How’ of this aspect are best answered by ‘Why’. In the sections below, I want to show you the power of Why.

Corporate firms use ‘The Five Whys’ in business analysis to arrive at a root cause of a problem. The art of creative writing involves problem solving in every step of the process, so it would make sense that writing coaches such as Jurgen Wolff would incorporate similar techniques in the process of writing as well. So today, I want to extend Jurgen Wolff’s suggestion into the highly effective Five Whys technique and show you how to master every aspect of character creation.

The Five Whys of Your Character’s Foundation
As identified in the article about character creation, you will be exploring your character’s name/nickname, preferred gender, sexual preference and appearance here. To apply ‘The Five Whys’ here, ask yourself five ‘Why’ questions about that element of that character’s life. For the first round of five questions, stick to just the element. Do not think what the answer will be and do not worry about the details. The question does not need to start with a Why but it needs to answer a ‘Why’ component for the topic.

Let me illustrate through the first element; your character’s name/nickname. Let’s say you identified that your character’s name is ‘Katie’. Start with asking yourself five ‘Why’ questions about that like “Who named her Katie?”, “Why did they name her Katie?”, “Is Katie short for Catherine or is the name just Katie?”, “Does she like her name?” and “Does she have a middle name?”. Make sure the questions are just about the name and do not have any ‘and’ components. Answer each question before you dive into the details.

When you feel that the answer to a certain question is building a story of its own, craft five questions based on the answer to the question to explore the details. As an example, if the answer to “Who named her Katie?“ is, her grandmother, then as per the set of questions above, you may find yourself developing another set of five ‘Why’ questions in answer to “Why did they name her Katie?”. To uncover the story behind why her grandmother named her Katie, you may choose to ask yourself these further five ‘Why’ questions: “Did her grandmother name her after an ancestor?”, “Why did she pick that name and that ancestor?”, “Why was she attached to that name”, “Why did she not consider another name?” and “Why did Katie’s parents consent to the name and not push for one of their choice?”

In this manner, flesh out each element until you have a good amount of detail and the character begins to come to life. You may not need or even use all these answers in your story, but it will be a fantastic investment in making your characters seem real to you. When they appear real to you, you will be able to craft their story, actions and decisions with greater conviction.

Here are the starter questions for other elements of your character’s foundation:

Preferred gender: “What gender does your character identify with and why?”, “Why did they feel they needed to pick their gender as opposed to going along with the one they were born with?”, “Was this choice difficult?”, “What made this choice difficult?” and “What other choices come along with this choice?”

Sexual preference: “What is this character’s sexual preference?”, “How did they arrive at their decision?”, “Do they face any challenges on account of it?”, “Has their sexual preference invited a reaction from their family?” and “Is their sexual preference relevant to the story?”

Appearance: “Will you give a full physical description or hints of certain physical characteristics?”, “Is your character able-bodied or disabled?”, “What do they do to enhance their appearance?”, “Do they like how they look?” and “What do others think when they look at them?”

The Five Whys of Your Character’s Personality
This section will further develop the personality traits presented in the article on character creation. The character’s everyday habits, in particular journaling, food preferences and musical inclinations are a great place to begin. Why must you start with these? Well, our everyday habits and routine are strong keys to our personality. Starting from those makes every scenario in your journey of writing your story much easier. Think about it, when you are about to ask either of your parents or your spouse a question, you pretty much know what their answer will be down to the last expression. As such you need to know your characters just as intimately to create a compelling journey for them.

So, begin by asking yourself, “What time does my character like to wake up?”, “What is my character’s first thought every morning?”, “How do they like to start their day?”, “What does a typical day look like for them?” and “What time do they go to bed?”. This will set the stage for diving into the details of their specific everyday habits like journaling and you can move on to more detailed questions like; “Do they have a journal?”, “How often do they journal?”, “Who introduced them to journaling?”, “What language do they use in their journal?” and “Do they read through their own journal?”. I am sure by now you can see how even writing these questions makes the characters more flesh and bones for you. The act of thinking up the questions makes it feel like the character is sitting in front of you and as you sift and sort through the questions that come to your mind, you grow in your knowledge of your character.

Let’s talk a bit more about the other two everyday habits, starting with food preferences. If your book has no intention of featuring food in the theme, you may wonder why you need this, but you see, it’s not about your book’s theme. To build a convincing character you need to feel how they perceive various senses. Food is inherently a sensory experience, if you do not believe me, think about all those times when you ate something to feel good. Think about all those times when a cup of sweet tea helped to alleviate your stress and when chocolate made your pain go away. Such experiences are testament to the sensory power of food. Delve into the senses of your character through these five questions about their food preferences, “What is their favourite cuisine?”, “What do they eat when they are stressed?”, “What cuisine did their family eat every day?”, “Which cuisine do they dislike and why?” and “Which particular food item invokes a memory in their mind?”.

From one sensory experience to the other, your character’s musical preferences. Music has the ability to soothe our nerves, magnify our joy and summon memories. Music is universally recognised as food for the soul and is a part of everyone’s daily habits. So, think about these things with regards to your character’s music choices, “What is their favourite genre of music?”, “What language does their music of choice tend to be in?”, “Do they like to play it out loud of use headphones?”, “Do they like to sing along or just listen?” and “How do they channel the inspiration they receive from the music?”.

Apart from being a fun way to flesh out your character, this is also a super fun exercise to explore your creative potential. Writers love to weave stories and if we get to craft mini stories around various aspects of our characters, well, what can be better than that!

Here are the starter questions for other elements within the ‘Personality’ category:

Leader or Follower: “Is your character comfortable with being the centre of attention?”, “Is your character a people pleaser?”, “Does your character feel comfortable speaking up in a large group?”, “Does your character naturally take charge of a situation?” and “Does your character try to blend in or stand out in a social setting?”

Fears/Pet Peeves: “What is your character afraid of (reptiles, birds, insects etc.)?”, “How did that fear take hold?”, “Since when have they carried that fear?”, “What are their pet peeves?” and “How do they deal with their fears and pet peeves?”

Joys: “What brings your character joy?”, “How often do they feel joyful/engage in what gives them joy?”, “Why does that particular thing give them joy?”, “How do they act when they feel happy?” and “Who do they share their joys with?”

Flaws: “What character flaws do they embody?”, “Do they view these as flaws?”, “What do others around them think of these flaws?”, “How do these flaws impact their everyday life?” and “Does your character think they need to be addressed?”

Talents: “What special talents do your characters embody?”, “How aware are they of their own talents?”, “Do they utilise their talents to their benefit?”, “Do they use those talents to help others?” and “Did they consciously work to better those talents?”

Obsessions: “What if your character obsessed with?”, “How did this obsession develop?”, “How does this obsession manifest?”, “Do they mind this obsession?” and “What do those around them think about this obsession?”

Planned or Spontaneous: “Does your character plan everything or do they tend to do things more spontaneously?”, “Does being planned/spontaneous work for them?”, “What works well as a result of them being planned/spontaneous?”, “What does not work as a result of them being planned/spontaneous?” and “Who influenced them to be planned/spontaneous?”

Prized Possessions: “What are your character’s prized possessions?”, “When did they acquire those possessions?”, “Who did they acquire them from?”, “In what ways are those possessions important to them?” and “Do they fear losing those possessions?”

Handwriting: “What style of handwriting does the character have (print, cursive etc)?”, “Does your character’s handwriting slant to the left or the right?”, “How did they develop this handwriting?”, “Do people like your character’s handwriting?” and “What do they think of their own handwriting?”

How They View Themselves: “What does your character think about themselves?”, “Do they believe they make a strong first impression?”, “Do they feel confident in themselves?”, “Do they want to change anything about themselves?” and “How does their view of themselves affect their ambitions and decisions?”

How They View Others: “What is the first thing they notice about people?”, “Does the character trust others easily?”, “Do they pay attention to what people wear and how they present themselves?”, “Do they notice how people speak?” and “Can they identify people in a similar profession to theirs e.g. lawyers, doctors etc.?”

The Five Whys of Your Character’s Work
As per the article on character creation, this section has two essentials elements; what your character does for a living and what their ambitions are. In this section you will think about their work personality and how that interplays with their personality in its entirety.

Ask yourself these five questions about what your character does; “Does your character have a job?”, “Do they like their job?”, “How does liking/not liking their job affect their everyday mood?”, “Are they working in something they always wanted to work in?” and “Do they wish they were doing something else?”

Asking these questions will open the floodgates of work-related emotions and smoothly carry you into your character’s ambitions. Ambitions drive us and as such they are an amazing way to learn more about someone. Ask your character five questions about their work and ambitions and you might be surprised to learn what they have to share.

Here are the starter questions for the other element of your character’s work:

Their Ambitions: “What is your character’s highest ambition?”, “What inspired them to that ambition?”, “Do they hope to achieve it?”, “Do they actively work on it?” and “Do they enjoy being ambitious?”

The Five Whys of Your Character’s Family
You may have already explored some aspects of your character’s family whilst exploring your character through the questions above. Now, it is time to really dive into the depths of your character’s family. As you read in the article on character creation, the first element of this section is your character’s parents and siblings. It seems like a simple enough category but you’ll be surprised how much detail can be uncovered through exploring the familial ties of your characters.

Explore these five starter questions about your character’s parents and siblings. “Does your character have both parents?”, “Are your character’s parents married?”, “What is the personality of each of your character’s parents?”, “Does your character have siblings?”, “What does your character think about their parents and siblings?” and “How do your character’s thoughts about their parents and siblings impact their behavior towards them?”.

The other element in this category is that of a significant family member. This is my favorite aspect, as here I can use inspiration from patterns of behavior observed in real-life people, and construct as many significant relatives in my story, or combine them all into one person.

Let me illustrate through some starter questions for this element:

Significant Family Member: “Who is this family member?”, “How are they related to your character?”, “What makes them stand apart?”, “How does your character feel about them?” and “How does your character interact with them?”.

In conclusion, ‘The Five Whys’ can solve almost any problem in creative writing pursuits. You can get to the bottom of any dimension in your projects by starting with five questions about it.  Let me let you in on a secret, this technique is a fantastic way to break your writer’s block too. Just begin to ask yourself five questions about it and before you know it, you will be well on your way to writing again!

Bio: Sarina Byron is a California based writer whose work has been published in Introvert, Dear, Thrive Global, Walker’s Legacy, Book Series Recaps and a variety of other publications. Sarina covers lifestyle, fashion, business, well-being, book reviews and writing techniques in her writing. Follow her on Instagram @sarinatrodriguez for more


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