Finding My, and My Character’s, Why

Becoming the hero in my story

Photo by Vlad Bagacian on Unsplash

The human brain is a meaning-seeking machine; rather than taking everything at face value, we’re wired to try to figure out what’s really going on. Because understanding the why fundamentally changes our perception of the what.

— Lisa Cron in Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel

Middle with why

I am trying to find my why. According to Simon Sinek, I should have started with why. Before doing anything else I should have established what my purpose is. Once I have established my motivation, my why for doing things, then everything else will follow from that.

People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.

— Simon Sinek in Start With Why

I shouldn’t focus on what I should be doing, or how I should be doing it, until I have a clear idea of why.

Unfortunately, Simon, I haven’t started my life with why. I started with the what and the how. And now I’m half-way through, and the why still remains a mystery.

But it’s never too late. So I can’t start with why. But I can middle with why.


Bear with me a moment, because if you would like a soundtrack to listen to whilst reading this, and you’re not too averse to musicals, I have one. Thinking about my why brought to mind these songs:

  • Why God Why? from Miss Saigon
  • Purpose from Avenue Q
  • Gethsemane from Jesus Christ Superstar
  • Find Your Grail from Spamalot

Pop these on as background if you’d like. If you’re not into musicals, please ignore and move on.

Character motivations

As I’m also thinking a lot about stories, and how to write better ones, I am naturally also looking at how characters come to their why.

In order to make our characters believable, we need to understand their motivations. We can’t determine what they will do (their goals), or how they will do it (the plot) until we have a clear idea of why (their motivation).

However, it is often not clear to the characters at the start of their story what their motivations are. They are likely to be focussed on their external goals and making plans. The author should be aware of the character motivations and should aim to show these to the reader, even whilst the character is clueless.

There is a parallel between our lives and a character in a story.

The story of our lives

Kira-Anne Pelican in her book The Science of Writing Characters has a chapter on how character motivations are linked to psychology. In childhood and early adulthood we are focussed on our extrinsic goals. How do we make gains in life?

By midlife we are reassessing those goals. There is a shift in focus to spending more time in meaningful relationships. We are moving from satisfying external goals to exploring our internal motivations.

What are those internal motivations?

Self-determination theory says that as we grow older we are learning to fulfil our three essential needs —

  • competency,
  • autonomy,
  • and belonging.

There is a link here with Daniel Pink’s book Drive where he looks at what motivates people and produces better work.

Maybe our early careers are focussed on simpler tasks. For these rewards work well as motivators. If you get a bonus for completing these types of task then it increases your ability on them. Carrot and stick approaches work well.

But these motivators do not work well for more complex, creative tasks. In fact, external motivators for these tasks actually impair your performance on them.

Instead we should be looking at the internal motivators — autonomy, mastery and purpose. Look back at the essential needs of self-determination theory. If mastery is the ultimate goal of increased competency, and purpose is finding a sense that our work is part of something bigger, a sense of belonging, then these are the same.

Back to the character in our story.

Want and need

There is the characters WANT — their external goals they are aware of — and their NEED — the internal driver. They start the story oblivious to their need and focussed on their want. As their story progresses their need may become more pressing until it outweighs their want.

In the first half of the story they are more focussed on their want, but in the second half of the story they are more focussed on their need. Ultimately they might sacrifice their want to satisfy their need.

My story

If my life is a story then I’m at the midpoint now. I’m switching from focussing on my wants to my needs.

I’m ready to find my why.

This morning I started the process, as outlined in the book Find Your Why. I remembered significant events from my past, the other people involved, and made brief notes on them. Next I will sit down with a partner and tell the most impactful stories so that they can help me to identify the common themes.


A similar process is recommended for finding a character’s motivations by Lisa Cron in Story GeniusIn creating a character we need to understand what has shaped them. Rather than focussing on bio questions such as What is their favourite breakfast cereal? we should look at the events from their past that have had an impact on the way they see themselves. In particular the events that have led to a misbelief, something that they are taking as true and is negatively impacting their life.

For example, such a misbelief could be I will not be loved if I reveal that I am gay. She suggests finding specific events in the character’s backstory that would have led to this belief, and then writing those scenes.

This backstory may not appear in the present story at all, but will help the author to understand the character’s motivations. Their need would become to accept that they can reveal their sexuality and still be loved. Their initial want may be to find a partner of the opposite gender. There would be a shift from their want to their need as the story progressed.

The why statement

The ultimate purpose of Find Your Why is to reach a statement of the form To <CONTRIBUTION> so that <IMPACT>.

Simon Sinek’s why statement is to inspire people to do the things that inspire them so that, together, each of us can change our world for the better.

Once I have the themes, I will then draft my why statement.

Taking it further

Finding my why is only the start of the process. In Nail Your Niche: the 7 Ingredients of a Six-Figure Online Coaching Business by Brian Ellwood, the first step is Nail Your Why.

It is an essential step so that I can:

  • let my audience know what I stand for
  • use it as an overarching vision for my business
  • use it as inspiration for my products
  • use it as a filter to make decisions

Writing a story

Finding the character’s why will unlock the story you are writing.

Once you know their need, then you can:

  • let the reader know what they stand for
  • use it to determine their their actions
  • use it as a filter for their decisions

Finding the why (the motivation) is the key to unlocking a story, whether that is the story of my life, or the story I am writing.

This post contains affiliate links.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *