#ammwriting: Firing Chekhov’s gun

Motivation memeThis last weekend, I attended PNWA’s annual writing conference in Seattle, Washington. I garnered a great deal of advice from industry professionals and took seminars offered by well-known authors, agents, and editors.

I attend this conference every year. PNWA is where I come to learn both the craft of writing and business of publishing. Craft and business: two aspects of writing that every serious author must know whether they are going indie or taking the traditional route.

Today’s post is about identifying what motivates your characters. Well-known writing coach,  Lindsay Schopfer, gave a seminar on this, which unlocked ideas for my works in progress. That is how writers’ conferences work for me—they pry loose the ideas that have been stuck and help me verbalize them.

You have probably heard of the literary rule known as Chekhov’s Gun, which says nothing should appear in the scene that has no use. If a rifle is important enough to be shown hanging on the wall, someone had better fire it, or it should be removed from the setting.

Firing Chekhov’s gun brings us to motivation. When I was in elementary school, I was taught  “the 5 Ws” of journalism. I feel sure they still teach this, but just to remind you, they are:

  • Who
  • What
  • When
  • Where
  • Why

These five words form the core of every story. Who did what? When and where did it happen?

Why did they do it?

In some stories the author had made the what quite clear, but the why is murky. I hate it when the author is at a loss as to why their protagonist wants to do the task set before them.

If a character commits a murder, you’d better know why they were compelled to do it. Random events inserted to keep things interesting don’t advance the story.

When a character arrives at the inciting event, the things that motivate him/her should already be established. Identifying what makes your character do the things they do is the core of character development. Some characters are easy:

  • Edwin wants to save Marya.
  • Wynn wants to get back to his wife and his forge.
  • Huw wants to avoid being hanged for treason.

Some characters have motives that are more difficult to identify. Motives are driven by need, what a character desires, and what they are willing to do to attain it.

Suppose we have a protagonist who realizes her marriage is failing. We’ll call her Anna. Before we begin writing, we need to do a little brainstorming about Anna and find out who she is and what makes her tick.

She is a well-educated, professional woman, a writer of paranormal fantasy. She is married to another writer, David.

What motivates her? David is strong, charismatic and brilliant. There is nothing he doesn’t feel entitled to, and he will do anything to achieve his goals. Although she is a best-selling author of popular fiction and is the person paying the bills, Anna has made a habit of catering to his needs.

At first, she wants to keep her marriage together and presents herself as whatever she thinks David wants her to be. She feels as if she casts no shadow of her own. As the summer progresses and events unfold, she evolves, becoming an individual who no longer needs his validation. In the process, Anna finds that she is, and has always been, the strong one in the relationship.

With those paragraphs, we know the main protagonist’s desire—on the surface she has a deadline for her book and wants to save her marriage, but really she is seeking her sense of self-worth, trying to find who she is.

Now, let’s find out who the other characters are:

Anna and David rent a secluded house on the wild Washington coast for the summer. They invite 3 companions to join them for the summer, as a working retreat. All five characters have deadlines, and that is their official reason for accepting Anna’s invitation. However, the four other characters each have their own agendas. Other than Anna, they each have strong personalities, are charismatic, and are used to a certain amount of privilege. At first, although it is subtle, each of them uses and manipulates Anna for their own purposes.

Every member of the cast has a secret, including Anna. With the revelation of each secret to the reader, the motivations for subsequent actions become clear. Someone will attempt murder to ensure their secret is kept. In the end, three will die by accident, and two will be left to pick up the pieces.

With this information complete, we know the genre–this novel is a contemporary fiction, and is the story of Anna’s journey to self-knowledge. It will be slower paced than a thriller, and will be about the people and their relationships more than the events. However, the events will shape the people.

LOTR advance poster 2Unless each character’s wants and needs are clearly defined, the events won’t make any sense. Without clear motivations, it’s just a bunch of drama queens cooped up with a psychopath, in a house by the gloomy Washington North Pacific coast. Once we know their motivation, it becomes a story. And as a writer trying to flesh out characters, it becomes easy to picture these five people as individuals possessing depth and desires.

Motivation is the character’s quest to fulfill his/her deepest needs. Consider Frodo: he has seen what the ring did to Bilbo and Gollum, but more than that, he loves the Shire and does’t want it to fall to shadow. Without a real, personal motivation, there is no reason for Frodo to  agree to walk to Mordor and certain death just to toss a ring into an active volcano.


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