Unleash Your Inner Toddler To Write Better Characters

A young girl crawling through a metal tunnel with a very confused look on her faceTheodore Scott



How Children Figure Out The World

I don’t have children, but I have met a few, and from what I hear, most of them go through this phase where they will not stop asking, “Why?”

They ask because they aren’t sure yet what the rules of the world are. They are starting to understand that some things cause other things, and they are trying to figure out why. They are trying to build a dataset that will allow them to accurately predict what will happen when they do a thing.

Yes, I pretty much just turned children into robots. Let me also tell you how awesome my emotional intelligence is.


Writers Need To Figure Out The World, Too

Whatever world you are creating, whether you are replicating the modern world, what you believe the past might have been, what the future could be, or if you are generating an entirely new world with entirely new rules, you need to know why things happen.

You need to have a set of situations so that you know, when X happens, then Y is likely to follow. If you jump in the water, you will probably get wet. Your characters, assuming they aren’t children, also need to know these rules, and they need to act as if they know them.

Say you’re writing a fantasy novel where clothing never gets wet. When people get in the water, they leave their clothes on, because, why wouldn’t they? Clothing never gets wet. If a character from this world suddenly found themselves in a world where clothing did get wet, they would act according to the wrong set of expectations, and hilarity would ensue. Before they touched the water, they would be baffled that other people change into other clothing, but once they got their socks wet, they would learn real fast.

Maybe that’s a stupid example, but the point is that all adult characters in your world should always have motivations based on how they have observed the world to work.


Ask Until You Never Want To Hear It Again

You could ask “Why” about everything you write down. Every action your characters take. Every thing they say. Every time they are surprised. Allow them to answer this question, because in fiction at least, there is a reason for everything.

People are not random and unpredictable. Every person is working from a different data set, and it makes sense to know what your characters’ assumptions are.


Even If You Never Need To Know

There is value in asking “Why” over and over and over, even if you never explicitly state the answer in your story. Any given character will always approach similar situations with the same expecations.

A huge cause of unbelievable characters is that they are inconsistent. A character tells her boyfriend that she was sexually abused as a teenager, but then he gets in a car with a complete stranger and drives a few states over. Why? What on Earth could make her do that? If you can’t answer that question and your reader can’t guess, they will quit your story.


Meet Your Inner Toddler

I’d like to introduce you to your Inner Toddler, now. He or she probably (but not certainly) is of the same gender as you, and probably goes by one of your nicknames when you were a baby. For example, mine is a little boy named Battering Ram Head.

In between demanding candy and throwing things on the floor, Battering Ram Head helps me figure out things like why a sexually abused teenage girl would go somewhere with a complete stranger.

Unlike a real life toddler (from what I hear), he can be satisfied, and he can follow complex and nuanced reasoning. I never said the analogy was perfect.

In any case, Battering Ram Head doesn’t buy that she’s going because he just seems so warm and fuzzy. But he does believe she might do it if she thought she was helping him save another girl from her fate. It would depend on how she acted in other situations as well.


A Consistent Character Is A Believable Character

If you always question the intentions and expectations of your characters, and make sure they are acting in accord with their previous intentions and expectations, they will be believable.

If your characters change, their intentions and expectations should change as well, and they should approach the same situations in different ways.

If your readers can’t guess what your characters will do, or rationalize why they did something unexpected, they will stop reading.


Now I ask you, Why?



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