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Finding the root cause of what your characters do

December 24, 2012

A while back I worked through a particularly maddening project at work in which I got to use a fishbone diagram. The fishbone diagram is used to identify the root cause of a specific problem by tracing it back to its lowest-level origin. You identify the ultimate cause–say Chris is writing a crappy blog post again. Then you ask why Chris is writing a crappy blog post. And then for each answer, you ask why that’s happening, until there are no whys.

This approach has some value in writing, as well. It’s not enough to understand and write what happened. It’s important as writers to understand why it happened. Why did character A do thing B? When thing B is out of character for that character, the why is more important than the what.

And then, when you find out why the character did that, you ask why about the why. For instance, Catherine pushed Jim away after he saved her job.

Why? Because she’s angry that he didn’t discuss this with her first. Why? Because they are close friends and having him do this behind her back, even if benefits her, is a violation of her trust and that’s a problem. Why? Because people she’s counted on have historically let her down.

At this point, the why question breaks down. The answers at that point stop being Catherine’s answers–though there may be value in identifying a couple instances of what happened to build backstory.

In this way, when you find your characters doing odd things you don’t think they would normally do, you can drill down to the ultimate cause and explain why, adding to your understanding of your characters and building a richer story for your readers.

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