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The 5 Ws of character building

Hello everyone, and welcome to my first Thoughts of a Squirrel King post for MV.

 

Today we will be talking about something that has recently come to my attention as a good tool for helping writers to make their characters. This was brought up in a chat by a few other people, but I have used this myself before.

 

I am, of course, speaking of the five Ws of character building: What, why, when, where and how.

For those of you who don't know, the five Ws are an often used way of quickly making a somewhat detailed character; be it for novels, books, or games.

The basic idea is to find out how a character acts and what they are working towards.

 

The What:

 

Think about everyone you know in real life, they all have a goal in life that they want to accomplish, to some extent at least. They all have a reasons for why they want accomplish that goal, they have a general idea of when they want to accomplish it, where they want to do it, and how they want to do it.

 

I'm going to type out a little character for everyone to follow along with as we go along. We'll name him Bob and give him a what, why, when, where and how.

 

What:

Name: Bob

Age:

Race:

Demographic :

Goal:

 

Why:

 

When:

 

Where:

 

How:

 

You will notice i added an age, race and demographic to the character sheet of Bob. You'll see why in a little bit.

 

First, we need to start off with the 'what'. The 'what' is generally made up of four parts, those being age, race, demographic and goal. Those first three may seem strange to some of you. Age? Race? Demographic? What do these really have to do with the character, and how do they relate to the goal?

 

Quite simply put, who we are defines what we want. If you are poor and living on the street, you generally want to live in a cozy home. If you are a oppressed minority, you will generally want equality, or to be above those who are oppressing. If you are old and past your prime, you may wish to relive your prime, or you may want to be treated as an adult if you are young. See how this works? It's one of the more troublesome parts of five Ws, mostly because many people have a hard time coming up with just who the character actually is.

 

I'll fill in this section of Bob quickly so we can move on.

What:

Name: Bob

Age: 18.

Race: Caucasian.

Demographic : Lower Class.

Goal: Wants to go to college.

 

Why:

 

When:

 

Where:

 

How:

 

18, Caucasian, lower class, and wants to go to college. This is one of the more simple Ws, but important because it acts as a base for the next section.

 

The Why:

 

The why is exactly what is sounds like, it is why the character is what they are, or why they want to accomplish their goals.

 

The why can be any number of things. For example: The reason why a corporate executive suddenly decides he's going to go by a gun? Any number of reasons comes to mind.

Maybe he has recently learned that his wife has been cheating on him for decades with his best friend, and is planning on getting revenge.

Perhaps his company is going down the drain, fast. He has nothing besides this company, no wifes, no children, no friends that aren't just there because of his money. Maybe he has decided he will end it all with a bullet and not in a gutter while scrounging for food.

Or perhaps he suddenly got the idea to learn take it to the range for fun, or as a way of showing his wife that he can protect her.

 

All of these are good (from a writing and character stand point) and believable reasons for why he would go and buy the gun. Again, there is literally thousands of reasons for 'why' but you need to decide on one, or two if the character has a secondary goal in mind, if you want a consistent character.

 

I'm going to add the why to Bob's character sheet.

 

What:

Name: Bob

Age: 18.

Race: Caucasian.

Demographic : Lower Class.

Goal: Wants to go to college.

 

Why: So he can get a better job, and show his father that he is worth something, who believes that Bob has wasted his life and has no chance of making it in the world.

 

When:

 

Where:

 

How:

 

And there we go. Bob wants a better job, perhaps to get out of his lower class lifestyle, but he also wants to show his father that he isn't useless, that he has value and can pull himself up. Again, a believable reason why, but it also has the added benefit of being dramatic. It's the classic tale of the underdog, or guy who wasted his life away up until now, picking himself up to prove to his father, and possibly himself that he can do what perhaps no one thinks he can do.

 

It's always good to make the goal, if not dramatic, at least something the character has to struggle for or is relatable to the readers/movie goers/players. And something like what we have for Bob is a good way of doing that. After all, who doesn't want to improve their life in some way?

 

The When:

 

Next is the 'when'. What is the when? Well, it can be several things. It could be when the character decided on their goal, when they decide to pursue their goal, or when they have decided is a good time to wait to pursue their goal.

 

For example: Jack's goal is to get water from the well on the hill. The reason why is that he is thirsty. The when is now. Because he just now decides that he wants to go get the water.

He later fell down the hill with his friend Jill. They were never seen again.

 

Anyway. Another example would be going back to the corporate executive. When is he going to go get that gun? Today? Tomorrow? Next week? When did he decide that he wanted the gun? When he found a naked picture of his wife on his friend's phone? When his company's stock started to crash? Or when his wife mentioned that she didn't feel safe in their home?

 

Let's add Bob's when.

 

What:

Name: Bob

Age: 18.

Race: Caucasian.

Demographic : Lower Class.

Goal: Wants to go to college.

 

Why: So he can get a better job, and show his father that he is worth something, who believes that Bob has wasted his life and has no chance of making it in the world.

 

When: He decided to go after an argument with his father where he yelled that Bob was a waste of all the time he spent raising him. And he decides that he wants to go at the beginning of the next year.

 

Where:

 

How:

 

And there we go. His father basically told him to his face that he was a complete waste of time. That's the kind of thing that will either make you go cry for a few hours, make you yell back, or decide to prove him wrong. Again, there can be multiple parts as to the why, but it's generally a good idea to keep it to at or below three to avoid making things too overly complicated.

 

The Where:

 

The where is basically where the character is going to go to accomplish their goal. For Jack, it is the well on the hill, for the corporate executive it is the gun store down the road, for Bob it is college.

 

This is perhaps the easiest W of the five, as long as you've followed the other steps. Although this can be augmented.

 

What:

Name: Bob

Age: 18.

Race: Caucasian.

Demographic : Lower Class.

Goal: Wants to go to college.

 

Why: So he can get a better job, and show his father that he is worth something, who believes that Bob has wasted his life and has no chance of making it in the world.

 

When: He decided to go after an argument with his father where he yelled that Bob was a waste of all the time he spent raising him. And he decides that he wants to go at the beginning of the next year.

 

Where: A public college with at least a 2 year technical course in whatever in fine arts.

 

How:

 

Again, it is very simple and sometimes completely self evident.

 

The How:

 

Now we are in the home stretch. The how is exactly what it sounds like, it is how the character plans on accomplishing the goal. The goal can be one step, two steps, or even twenty steps. Whatever fits the characters and the goal. It can be how they are going to get to the end of their goal, how they are going to acquire the means of accomplishing their goal, or just how they are going to survive while they try to accomplish their goal.

 

Jack needs to go get a bucket, then head up the hill, and then draw the water from the well with the bucket.

 

The corporate executive needs to get a gun license, if he doesn't already have one, head to the gun store and purchase the gun.

 

Let's add a more RPG character here as well.

The simple farmer from a small village, Edwin, has the goal of stopping the evil wizard. The reason why is that the wizard destroyed his village and killed all of his friend. The when is right now. The where is the wizard's tower that lies in the middle of a lake of molten lava. And the how is by gathering allies, training to become stronger, acquiring an ancient weapon that he was always destined to wield, and then by fighting his way to the wizard's tower, and then finally fighting the wizard.

 

Let's add Bob's how.

 

What:

Name: Bob

Age: 18.

Race: Caucasian.

Demographic : Lower Class.

Goal: Wants to go to college.

 

Why: So he can get a better job, and show his father that he is worth something, who believes that Bob has wasted his life and has no chance of making it in the world.

 

When: He decided to go after an argument with his father where he yelled that Bob was a waste of all the time he spent raising him. And he decides that he wants to go at the beginning of the next year.

 

Where: A public college with at least a 2 year technical course in fine arts.

 

How: By getting a job to pay his way through college, since his old man ain't going to give him any money, and by studying hard to ensure he graduates.

 

And there. We have all of the Ws of character building. Bob is now a complete, character, with motives, goals, and a plan on how he is going to accomplish those goals. Congrats, Bob.

 

Actually, there is one more W that I haven't mention so far, and it's fairly important, but, in my mind, can't be written without the first five Ws having been written down first. I am, of course, speaking of...

 

The Who:

 

The who is who the character is, their personality, how they act, how they define themselves, ect.

The reason I you can't right this before you write the other Ws is because, well, those other Ws, in a way, are already the who.

 

Think about it. What have we learned about Bob and the other example characters?

 

We learned that Jack is thirsty.

 

... What? You want more then that? Fine. He is also someone who likes to do something by himself, or at least through his own self initiative. He could of simply asked an adult, or a friend to go get the water for him, but he went and did it himself.

 

The corporate executive, no matter which version you prefer, is a man who decides things on a personal level quickly, possibly without too much thought, and maybe goes ahead with his plans no matter what anyone else may have to say. If you take the revenge version, he has a quick and violent temper, since we never say that he think of doing anything other then getting revenge, and with the suicide version, he maybe puts too much of himself into the things he owns, or has a secret self-loathing that causes him to take failures very personally.

With the third version that he cares about his wife's feeling of safety, or maybe he likes to feel big both at work and at home.

 

And Edwin. He is someone who does not sit down and give up, he pulls himself up from the destruction of the life he knew and sets out to stop the wizards. He is driven enough to train himself from a farmer into a hero, possibly charismatic, or sympathetic enough to recruit allies to his cause, and determined enough to see it all through to the end.

 

And Bob? Bob is a slacker, who perhaps never put much thought into what he wanted to be, he simply drifted through high school because he had to, and hadn't a single wish to continue his education until his argument with his father. After that we see something else to him, he, much like Edwin, is driven. He WILL prove to his father that he can be more then a slacker, he WILL make a better life for himself. He's intelligent enough to have at a decently thought out plan and is so determined to prove himself to his dad that he is willing to take the extra responsibility of working his way through college. Will he slacker nature show itself and possibly compromise his goal? Most definitely, that's where his drama kinda comes in. A lazy guy trying to break out of that shell and make something new out of himself.

 

I hope this was useful to you all. And if you have any questions, feel free to post down below.

 

Have a good day.

-LS


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