Tag Archives: character motivation

The character sketch and motivation #amwriting

Sometimes a novel gets off track half way through the first draft and we don’t know why it isn’t working. At that point, it may be a good time to take a look at the characters and rediscover what motivates them.

A character sketch is a tool that can help solidify the story in the planning stage. It is also a way to rein in characters who have taken over the story to no good effect. Once I remind myself of who my characters are and what their secrets were at the outset, I can get them back to the path that will take the novel to its completion.

Sometimes, I need to remind myself why they commit the sometimes heinous acts they do.

It’s a good idea to make a character sketch of the main players with all the important points mentioned, but not too detailed. With a paragraph for each character, the document isn’t too long. For example, two good characters might be:

Isobel (Izzy) Gardner: 41, vegan, novelist, lives in Seattle with her husband, Parker. Writes fantasy novels, has a deadline for next book. Her stepsister lives when them when she isn’t on tour, putting stress on an already difficult marriage.

Claire Claymont: 39, world renowned pianist, with secret opiates addiction. She is obsessively in love with Dominic, obsessed to the point she would do anything to keep him. Insists on living with Izzy when she isn’t touring.

Once the character sketches are out of the way, I do a short synopsis of the story as I intended it go. Basically, it’s a few words that just hit the high points of the novel, a few paragraphs that briefly tell me the story as I imagine it will go. An example:

The inadvertent revelation of Claire’s unplanned pregnancy throws Izzy’s plans for a productive working summer and the reconciliation of her marriage into chaos. Claire’s refusal to name the father threatens each of the three men.

Someone will attempt murder. Not sure yet who, but it will be one of the three men.

This might tell me that some events I have written into the story need to be cut, as they are what I think of as NaNoWriMo fluff—the stuff that falls out when I am writing stream-of-conscious and not looking at my outline.

I go back and look at the original motives of each character, and if the new elements are good and a side-character should have more prominence, I expand their character sketch, detailing what motivates them and why they are more important than a character I first thought would work. This is where doing a new character sketch can resurrect a stalled novel.

Motivation is everything. Motivation is the character’s quest to fulfill his/her deepest needs.

  1. What do these people have to lose?
  2. Who has the most to lose?
  3. What is their greatest fear?
  4. What is their greatest hope?

John Pierce: 42, Claire’s cousin, a licensed doctor, he practices exclusively by volunteering with Doctors Without Borders for half the year, and the rest of the time he works as a well-known painter/illustrator. Illustrates Izzy’s book covers. His longtime relationship has disintegrated, and he is trying to process that. Served as an Army doctor in Afghanistan, has PTSD from his tour of duty, which is worsened by his missions in third world countries. Mentally exhausted, he is conflicted, considering leaving medicine for good. His subconscious motivation for art is escapism.

His wife has left him. As a way of dealing with the failure of his marriage, he engages in some risk-taking behavior, such as storm surfing, a hobby embraced by Parker and Dominic.

John’s conscious motivation–hopes to use the time to make a decision regarding his medical career.

Each of the main characters gets an expanded paragraph.

Then I sit down and consider how I want to use symbolism to emphasize the environment and the emotional chaos of those people. If I were writing this novel, I would want to bring out the Gothic feeling of the summer house, the unspoken undercurrents, and fractured relationships. I make a list of symbolic things to support the atmosphere I’m trying to convey:

  1. Jigsaw puzzles – many dramas going on, but it’s hard to see the pattern until the pieces are put together.
  2. Broken and cracked objects visible in the landscape and environment.
  3. Mist and fog rising from the sea in the mornings and evening – everyone hides something behind a smiling façade.
  4. Scenes and fragments of interactions viewed in mirrors – Parker attempts to divert Izzy’s suspicions with “smoke and mirrors.”
  5. Izzy’s unfinished novel is an subconscious mirror of real events she doesn’t seem to recognize.

Nothing that muddies the story arc needs to remain in the story unless it is important to advance the plot. If it is necessary but isn’t working well, then you must rewrite that plot point until it pushes the story forward.

In my work, a plot twist that is not working generally has failed because I have stuffed too much detail into it. The things that make a character feel conflicted are important, as are their negative qualities, but minute details don’t matter.

The downside to the work I produce during NaNoWriMo is that much of it requires massive reshaping. The positive side is that some of my best ideas for later projects seem to spew forth during that month of madness—it’s just that they are unformed and unwieldy, and may just be an exercise in creative writing, not a novel.

And that’s okay too—it’s good to admit to yourself that some words were written just for you.

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Motivation, the Character’s Quest #amwriting

The rough draft is called ‘rough’ for a multitude of reasons. This earliest of manuscripts is where we are thinking out loud, finding the true story, so it is bumpy, uneven. We begin with an idea, a ‘what if,’ and as we write, an awesome cast of characters leap onto the page.

Sometimes the side characters are so great, they overshadow the person we originally thought was the protagonist. What do you do if you have chosen a protagonist, but another character suddenly seems to have a more intriguing way about him? You must make a decision–who will be the central character?

If, as you are writing, a different character than the one you originally thought was the protagonist comes to the fore, consider rewriting your beginning to reflect that change. If you are participating in NaNoWriMo and you are 26,000 words into it, don’t scrap it–simply continue forward, but insert a note to go back and change the beginning once November has passed. You wrote those words, and even though they will change in the next draft, they were hard-earned and count toward your official wordcount.

When you have a group of great characters, all with strong storylines, determining who makes the most compelling protagonist can be difficult. Sometimes you must write half a novel before you realize which character has the most opportunity to take full advantage of all the possibilities.

For whatever reason, this never happens in my fantasy work. It is when I am writing contemporary fiction that the story sometimes shifts in a direction I hadn’t planned and identifying just whose journey I am following is easier said than done. As the rough draft progresses, I have to keep in mind that motivation is the key to discovering both who the protagonist is, and who is the villain of the piece. Motivation is the character’s quest to fulfill his/her deepest needs.

  • Who among these people has the most to lose?
  • Which character do you find the most interesting?
  • Whose personal story inspired this tale in the first place?
  • Who will be best suited to take full advantage of all this plot’s possibilities?

The character who best answers those questions must become the protagonist. If necessary, the story will have to be rewritten to reflect that change.

Most of us remember the “five Ws” of journalism. These five words that begin with the letter ‘W’ form the core of every story. Who did what? When and where did it happen?

Why did they do it?

As a reader, I dislike discovering the author is at a loss as to why their protagonist wants to do the task set before them. Random events inserted to keep things interesting don’t advance the story but motivation does.

Suppose we have a protagonist who realizes her marriage is failing. Anna 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, egocentric, 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, Anna 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.

Once we know what the characters desire we know who the protagonist is and also we know who will be the best antagonist.

Now, let’s see 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.

Unless each character’s desires and needs are clearly defined, the events won’t make any sense. Without clear motivations, all you have are a bunch of drama queens cooped up in a house by the gloomy Washington North Pacific coast.

Once we know who has the most to lose and what motivates each character, we know which of them has the most compelling story. At that point, we have our protagonist. The second draft will be much easier to write.

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On Motivation

Periodically I get so far off track that I have to completely scrap the mess I am working on.  It’s as if I began writing one book, but somewhere along the line it becomes another.

300px-WoT08_ThePathOfDaggersOne of the worst, most divergent messes I have created as a writer occurred early on in my current work-in-progress. I was  apparently channeling Robert Jordan. (The Path of Daggers) (Sorry, Wheel of Time fans–I had to say it. I loved the series overall, but he lost us there. It’s okay to admit it.)

I became so completely sidetracked by the stories of my random squirrels…er…side characters…that I completely lost track of the character whose story I had begun writing. I wrote well over 200,000 words that did not advance that story.

I got so lost that I had to rein it in somehow. I’m not Robert Jordan, so there’s no way folks are going to stick with me while I meander through 15 books in the trilogy.

I shelved that MS, re-titled it  Junk for my next book,  and started all over again, this time with an outline. But all is not lost–I have 3 books worth of material for later, and it was a good exercise in how NOT to write a novel.

What originally got me going off in so many directions  was the search for one particular character’s motivation. WHY does he behave the way he does?   I wasn’t sure how to go about it, and I began by writing a backstory that I knew would never make it into the book. It was intended to show me who this person is, and what motivates him, but it got out of hand rather quickly.

In a workshop I attended at a recent convention,indie author  Lindsay Schopfer boiled character motivation down to one  simple thing: Need. Every action by a character must be motivated by some need.

Well, it sounds simple, enough, but it really can be complicated. After Lindsay’s talk, it occurred to me that I had gone about it the hard way. The simplest way would be to graph it out, and the internet is rife with all sorts of inspirational thingys of this nature, but I’m a rebel. I gotta do it my own way.

SO–I was a bookkeeper for years–I fired up Excel, and made me a handy-dandy Motivational Chart, where I identified the characters, what their action was, and what motivated that action.

What does a character need? Well, what do real people need?  The basics are  food, shelter, and garments. Once they have those items, they may need transportation, they may need entertainment. They need companionship. They need spirituality, or love, or sex. Once we identify what a character needs, we need to know how far they are willing to go to acquire it.

The lengths they will go to achieve their goal is the real story

This is one section of the long chart:

motvation table

Now, you don’t have to be able to use MS Excel to make your own motivational chart. Get your ruler out, and block off sections on a standard sheet of paper. If you don’t have a ruler, use the straight side of something long, like a foil-box or a plastic-wrap box.  The point is, you want to tame the chaos on one horizontal tier of a grid:

character –>his actions –> and why he did it (his motivations.)

motivation table - blank

In the process of doing that you may find yourself ironing out some plot wrinkles, as I did. I am a linear thinker–so I need to have my characters as clear to me as if they were my dearest friends. For me, that means I will make a chart from now on, rather than wasting time writing words to nowhere.

After I did this, I wrote 25,000 words that launched the real story. Charting my character’s motivations works well for me.  I will be story-boarding my work in this fashion in the future.

 

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