Character motivations: sink or swim
Have you read a book where you wonder what went on in the character’s mind to make him/her do something when throughout the book you were shown differently?
Editing has made me more aware of my writing, and all those little problem areas I wish I could simply sweep under a rug. One of these problem areas is character motivation, the key action/s that drive the character in a plot. If it isn’t something a reader can understand and empathize with, it’s easy to be jolted from the story. Which is a bad thing. You want the reader to be unable to put down the book, to be so hooked from page one that all sense of time simply seems to slide away. At least, that’s what I want when I pick up a book. I want something where the character is as real as the person sitting next to me on the bus.
Motivation isn’t a visible trait but at the same time, it’s essential in supporting everything that drives a character. It provides the rationale. These motivations can be a straightforward desire to achieve a goal, or it can often be competing beliefs. The longer the story, the more complicated these motivations will be.
It’s more complicated than telling the reader why a character acted a certain way. That reason has to fit the character’s persona as well or else nothing will make sense. Some of these reasons can be as simple as the needs of Maslov’s Hierarchy:
- Physiological: air, food, water, sleep
- Safety: shelter, physical and financial security
- Social (Love/Belonging): family, friendship, acceptance in a group
- Esteem: confidence, respect, acknowledgment
- Self-Actualization: morality, wisdom, personal potential
- Cognitive: acquire and understand knowledge
- Aesthetic: appreciate and create beauty and structure
However, it’s not always as simple as that. And sometimes, the character doesn’t even realize what they need.
For any plot to be believable, there always must be pivotal actions from point A to point B. When characters seem to just be going through the motions to create conflict, their actions oftentimes come out forced. And the result of this intrusion by the author, lead readers to wonder why the character would perform such an action– whether the motivation is unclear or simply not developed. The story has thus lost credibility.
Why did the villain suddenly go on a killing spree? Why would the heroine fall into bed with the handsome hero? Instead of slapping a bandaid story (we’ve all heard them: he was abused as a child. she was drunk and he was there) to explain these actions, more thought is usually required. And I say usually loosely because there’s always going to be loopholes somewhere.
When a character is well motivated they don’t have to think about doing something. They do. They move and react to reach their goal in a way that makes sense and their energies are directed to this. They also have different intensities of feelings, willing to sacrifice to reach the goal.
When all motives are woven together and fleshed out, the character will be well motivated and essential to the story.
Good books to look at for resources:
The Writer’s Guide to Character traits by Edelstein; Fiction First Aid by Raymond Obstfeld