As a writer, I love the question, “What if…?”. What-if is a question that gives the imagination free rein to create and expand, to ignore rules and logic in favor of a spark of brilliance. I use what-if all the time.
The question I hate is “Why?”.
Why? you ask? I’m 107,000 words into a thriller novel that is balancing the fence between character driven and plot driven. And in case you don’t know me, or haven’t read all of my previous blogs, I’m kind of a type-A, logical, get-it-right-the-first-time writer. I’ve been struggling for several months, even though I know what needs to happen, but I couldn’t put my finger on why until several weeks ago, when someone asked me,
“Why is your bad guy doing X?”
I know. What a nervy so-and-so.
The problem is, they were right.
In a previous post, I said that each character deserved to be realized enough to have a life they’re leading before, during, and after the book. That they walk onto the page with all their baggage, foibles, self interest, etc. And that is doubly true for antagonists.
Read any writing book about the craft, and it’s going to tell you that antagonists painted wholly black without any humanness to them will not be compelling. Unless your antagonist is the devil, readers won’t buy it, and worse, they’ll get bored. The books also tell you that the best villains are the ones we don’t necessarily like or believe are good, but that we understand.
How do we make that happen, though?
What if our antagonist believed they had good reasons for what they do? What if in their world view, they are justified/righteous in doing what they do? Or, if they’re a tortured villain, to what extremes can we go to show who they are, what the compulsion makes them do, and their cycle of recrimination, etc.
That would be a pretty interesting antagonist, would it not? But do you see the problem with what I wrote above?
None of it deals with “why”. And without knowing why they are the way they are, or why their actions are important, critical or necessary to them, we only have the trappings of a character. It’s still only a facade, like a storefront on a Hollywood backlot.
In business, when we’re trying to identify the root cause of something, we use what is called the 5 Whys. It really consists of asking why five times, each time delving deeper into the answer. It goes something like this:
Bad guy wants to blow up the freeways in L.A.
L.A.’s pollution is out of control, and the freeways are a large contributor.
Freeways make it easier to get to places more quickly, so it encourages more driving. Blow them up, and people will drive less.
Gas prices are too high to go the long way. This will encourage people to stay home or shop in their own neighborhoods.
Why (is this important)? (4)
People are moving so fast, they’re not paying attention to what’s around them. Once they’re forced to slow down, then they’ll open their eyes and see.
Why (is this important)? (5)
I’m tired of almost getting hit every time I drive out on the road, because people are using their cell phones, texting, putting on their makeup, yelling at their kids, or arguing with their passenger rather than pay attention to what’s around them while they weave between lanes going seventy plus miles per hour. Those people won’t have the patience to go thirty. And everyone will be safer because of it.
So, what did we learn from this? The bad guy believes that blowing up the freeways will make it safer for everyone. He may know that what he’s doing is wrong, and that people will die, but he won’t think his motives are evil. We can abhor his method for dealing with the situation, but we can empathize with getting the careless idiots off the road.
Does that make sense?
In any case, that’s what I’m working on right now–trying to expand the depth of my characters by asking the why questions. For someone who just wants to “get it done”, I find the work tedious to the extreme. But I remind myself that not having it done is stalling the writing process, so it’s a necessary evil.
Wish me luck.