Tag Archives: finding character motivation

The Inferential Layer: Motives #amwriting

We talk a lot about motivation, in rather general terms. We ask what the characters want most and what they’re willing to do to obtain it. As an overview, that’s a good place to start.

Motivation is sometimes defined as the overall quest. Motives are more intimate, secrets held closely by the characters.

Consider the quest to destroy the One Ring. Every person in the Fellowship is motivated by the need to keep the One Ring from falling into Sauron’s hands. This is the acknowledged reason for their accompanying Frodo and is the core plot point around which the story unfolds.

Yet they each have secret thoughts and desires, some of which are subconscious. Some have plans that are left unspoken.

Each member of the Fellowship has personal reasons for volunteering to accompany Frodo to Mordor. In the end, those secret motives are the undoing of some and the making of others.

Samwise is a loyal friend who refuses to leave Frodo’s side. Fear that Frodo will need him forces him to insist on being included. Pippin and Merry have similar but different reasons—they don’t want to be left out if Frodo and Sam are going to have an adventure. Their motives are simple at the outset but become more complicated as their stories diverge and unfold. Pippin and Merry are separated from Frodo and Sam at Amon Hen. In the process, these four young hobbits lose their youthful naiveté and become leaders, warriors to be counted on when the going is rough.

Boromir desires the ring for what he believes is a noble purpose, and intends to take it to Minas Tirith. This is evident at the beginning of the Council of Elrond, but he soon sees he won’t achieve his overall goal unless he agrees to join the quest to destroy it. He tells himself he wants it so he can preserve Gondor. In reality, he knows the power of the ring and believes that by his possessing it, Gondor will return to its former glory and be safe forever. He will rule the world with a just hand. His true motive is a quest for personal power.

When we design the story, we build it around a need that must be fulfilled—a quest of some sort. For the protagonist, the quest is the primary goal, but he/she also must have secret, underlying motives not specifically stated at the outset. Each of the supporting character’s involvement in that storyline is affected by their personal ambitions and desires.

The Antagonist must also have motives both stated and unstated. He/she has a deep desire to thwart the protagonist, but there are reasons for this, a history that goes beyond the obvious “they needed a bad-guy and I’m it” of the cartoon villain.

Motivation is a major current in the inferential layer of the story. The hints of backstory, combined with clues, information delivered via conversation, should show each character as an individual. They must have underlying personal reasons that have nothing to do with acquiring the object or achieving the goal. These secret motives may or may not be important enough to be stated.

The hints and clues can be divulged both in conversation with the character in question or about them. Either way, snippets of dialogue are a useful tool for offering the protagonist and the reader information as needed.

No one goes through life acting on impulses for no reason whatsoever. On the surface, an action may seem random and mindless. The person involved might claim there was no reason, or even be accused of it—but that is a fallacy, a lame excuse.

The fundamental laws of physics, the rules that govern the universe are in force here: Nothing that occurs happens for no reason whatsoever. There is always a causative factor. Without a cause, there is no effect. Cause is motivation. Effect becomes cause, which becomes motivation. Motivation is a chain reaction of cause and effect, which becomes the story.

And it’s all traceable back to the character’s first idea, their first secret desire to do or have something.

When we look at things this way, we see that motivation must be a multilayered thing if we are to have well-rounded characters, people the reader can believe in.

Characters that feel too shallow sometimes lack sufficient personal motivations for buying into the larger quest. If we have supplied each character with a secret backstory, those hinted-at motives can sometimes push the story into newer, more original waters.

And isn’t that what we readers are looking for? We read because we are searching for a story that feels new, offers us a fresh view of the world through the characters’ eyes.

Comments Off on The Inferential Layer: Motives #amwriting

Filed under writing

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.

3 Comments

Filed under writing