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. I learned “the 5 W’s” of journalism when I was in grade school. Yes, back in the Stone Age they assumed 12-year-old children were considering their adult careers, and journalism was a respected path to aspire to. I don’t know if they still teach them, but they should.
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 has made the what quite clear, but the why is murky. I have read far too many novels where the author had no clue 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 felt compelled to do it. Readers don’t like unsolved mysteries, and random events with no resolution won’t keep them engaged.
When we write the scene detailing the inciting event, we should have already established what the characters want most. Their desires determine the path of the story arc. Identifying what motivates your character is the core of character development.
Some characters are easy to figure out:
- In Tower of Bones, Edwin wants to save Marya from her kidnapper.
- In Mountains of the Moon, Wynn wants to get the quest out of the way so he can get back to his wife and his forge.
- In Huw the Bard, Huw wants to avoid the gallows, falsely accused of treason.
Some characters have motives that are more difficult to identify. Need drives motives. What a character desires can be hard to isolate and describe.
So, as if we were meeting with a writing group, let’s get out our stylesheet/storyboard, open it to the personnel files, and brainstorm a group of characters for a prospective novel. If you haven’t made a storyboard/stylesheet by now, you should. See my post, Storyboarding Character Development.
Anna will be the protagonist in our example. Before we begin writing, we need to understand Anna, find out who she is, and what makes her tick.
She is a well-educated, professional woman who left her law practice to pursue her dream of writing mysteries. She is married to another writer, David. Her books are wildly popular, but she has always catered to his needs, often at the expense of her career.
What motivates Anna?
- When we first meet this couple, we can see that Anna fears her husband has strayed and is desperate to keep her marriage together.
- She presents herself as whatever she thinks David wants her to be.
- She confesses to her sister that she casts no shadow of her own.
So, on page one, we meet a woman with no sense of self-worth, no self-confidence.
We know what the main protagonist believes she desires.
Now, let’s find out who the other characters are and see if we can figure out what they want.
David is a well-known journalist and the author of several award-winning novels. He is confident, charismatic, and brilliant. He strongly advocates for women’s rights, civil rights, human rights, and volunteers many hours each week at a food bank. Despite the way he views himself, in reality, he suffers from a severe case of White Male Privilege. He despises it when he sees it in other people and truly believes he is a modern, enlightened man.
Anna and David invite several friends to spend the Christmas Holidays at their beach house. Anna plans it to be a month-long working retreat.
Unfortunately, David has been suffering from crippling writers’ block and has begun to seek inspiration in alcohol and an affair with the wife of a close friend. He loves Anna, and desperately wants to end that illicit relationship.
John is a renowned wildlife photographer. He is intent on photographing the way wildlife coexists with year-round tourism in coastal Washington State. His husband, Kyle, is Anna’s agent and editor. Kyle wants to get Anna’s next book finished as the publisher is eager to have it.
Marc is a world-famous concert pianist and composer who is working on the score for a space opera that is currently filming. His wife, Lilith, is a sculptor with a show opening in New York in January. She despises Marc and intends to end her marriage. She hates sneaking around but desperately wants to keep David, so she continues the charade.
All have visible deadlines for their work which are their official reasons for being there. But Lilith and David each have their agendas, which will clash.
All four of the side characters have strong personalities, are charismatic, and are used to a certain amount of privilege. Both David and Lilith use and manipulate Anna for their purposes, although John and Kyle try to head off what they see as a looming disaster. Every cast member has a secret, and someone will attempt murder to ensure their secret remains hidden.
As the plot progresses and events unfold, Anna must evolve, and her motives must change. She must become an individual who no longer seeks the validation of other people.
The motives and viewpoints of each of the other characters must also be altered, for good or ill.
By the end of the novel, Anna must discover that she is, and has always been, the strong one in her marriage.
With this information complete, we know this novel is the story of Anna’s journey to a place of strength and self-acceptance.
The plot would work no matter what genre you dress it up with, as long as the characters and the changes they go through are the primary focus. Sci-fi, paranormal fantasy, contemporary – genre doesn’t matter.
- The events force change upon the characters’ motives and form the plot.
- Motivation affects how each character sees the events.
- The way these events affect the preconceptions and desires of the players shapes the actions and reactions that occur in the next scene.
Without clear motivations, it’s just a bunch of drama queens cooped up in a house by the gloomy Washington coast. Unless each character’s wants and needs are clearly defined, the events won’t make any sense.
Once we know their motivation, it becomes a story.
When I need to flesh out characters, I write out what they think they want the moment we meet on page one, as if we were being introduced at a friend’s house.
Once I get a bit deeper into writing a story, circumstances will have changed at the midpoint. Do these changes affect the characters’ wants and needs? If so, I make a note of that on my stylesheet.
Motivation is the characters’ quest to fulfill their deepest needs.
Why must they climb that mountain? Why did they fire that gun?
Why did Frodo and Sam endure what they did to take the One Ring to Mordor?
Without a real, personal motivation, that of preserving the way of life in the Shire, there is no reason for Frodo to walk a thousand miles only to face certain death just for the thrill of flinging a ring into an active volcano.
Next Monday, we will talk emotion, and explore why showing it well is such an art form.