What Drives Your Main Character?

When I critique the work of developing writers, I’m often struck by the same thought. The writing is decent, the scenes are well-constructed, and there’s plenty of action, but something essential is missing. I try to put my finger on what is lacking. I re-read the piece and it hits me. What’s often missing is the main character’s motivation.

Craft books point to motivation as a basic ingredient for a successful novel. Why? Motivation moves the story forward. It gives the character a purpose. Without it, a novel is just a series of disconnected scenes. If the main character’s motivation is unclear to the reader early on in the story, the writer has failed and the reader will lose interest. Experts advise writers to make the reader care about the characters in her novel. Developing real, multi-dimensional characters is the way to do that, but the writer must first answer the question, ‘What makes my main character tick?’

What do we mean when we talk about a character’s motivation? We’re not talking primarily about physical needs and wants. The character is dying of dehydration and must find water within minutes. That makes for a riveting scene, but in and of itself, it reveals little about the character, except he wants to stay alive. Don’t most people? To use another example, the main character must return to his home planet before his fuel runs out. These are urgent needs, but effective character motivations should work on a deeper level. The strongest character motivations are emotional and psychological.  A character yearns for the love she never received from her emotionally distant parents. How does that impact her view of relationships? Is she too needy? Will that place her in peril? Another example is the character who has a chip on his shoulder. He is the son who could never accomplish enough to please his taskmaster father. How does that affect his outlook on life? What challenges does that set up for him? How can the writer pay off the ending by having him overcome his fear of failure?

Motivation does a number of things for a writer:

  • It guides the character’s actions and reactions to what happens to her.
  • It adds purpose and depth to the story.
  • It informs the choices a character makes and the consequences of those choices.
  • It allows writers to create deeper, more complex and interesting characters.
  • It ultimately defines who the character is and the challenges she must overcome.

Revealing a character’s motivation is tricky business for a writer. Writers shouldn’t come right out and say it. “Joe was bitter because his father never once gave him a compliment. He was determined to take it out on others.” That may be the case, but it’s better to let the reader discover Joe’s character through his actions.

This topic is especially timely because thousands of writers are getting ready for the annual National Novel Writing Month competition. The challenge is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, beginning on November 1. As I prepare to enter NaNo for the second time, I am outlining my story (yes, it’s true; the old pantser actually decided to prepare a written outline this time). One of the things that’s paramount in my mind is the motivations of the various characters. This story pivots on character motivations.

Even for writers who are pantsers like me, it makes sense as a writer develops the major characters in her book to take a few minutes to think through their motivations. It will give the story purpose, meaning and depth.

How do you determine the motivations of your characters?

Advertisements

12 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

12 responses to “What Drives Your Main Character?

  1. Pat

    Great article. Love to explore the motives behind what my characters do. That exploration of ‘why’ is most of my book planning. I am a pantster, but I need to know what makes my people tick, otherwise I don’t know what their reactions – and over reactions – are going to be when I stick them in a situation.
    I don’t outline, but I do worry away under the surface about who and what and why and what if. Without those, I don’t have a story, only an idea with nothing to back it.
    Even pantsters need to know the backstory of characters.

  2. Pingback: What Drives Your Main Character? | patwoodblogging

  3. I am a one-time pantser who now at least thinks ahead as the story begins to take shape. My character’s motivations are paramount, even in the First Draft. I always keep the one question in my mind as I torture the protagonist (and even the anatagonist) – WHY are they doing this? Why don’t they just turn and run away? What the hell motivates someone to give up everything for someone she just met?
    If I can’t imagine myself doing what they do and be convinced that they
    A) Decided it was the best/most desirable course of action
    or
    B) They were left with no choice
    then it needs a rewrite – stat!
    Good, thought-provoking post

    • Andrew,
      Thanks for your comments. Even pantsers (or I should say, especially pantsers) havea to determine what motivates their characters before they start writing the story. I can’t start writing until I have a strong grasp on the main character’s motivations. Thanks again for your comment and for reading my blog.

  4. Pat,
    Thanks for your comments. I couldn’t agree more. I’m a pantser, but one of the things I do spend a lot of time figuring out before I start writing is character motivation. A successful story depends on it. As you said, without it, you don’t have a story, but an idea with nothing to back it up. Thanks again.

  5. CG, you are write (!) about us pantsers needing to understand our characters intimately before we write too much, and once we have written enough to get comfortable with our character(s) in action, look back and redo the opening before moving on. In my first novel, 3 Through History: Love in the Time of Republicans, I intentionally picked charismatic, but flawed, characters. I knew that my female lead would shoot up meteorically through the Mexican business world and crash horribly when she returned to the alcoholism that almost killed her as a teen. I knew that she was stuffing a brilliant life and a ton of booze into a hole left by the abandonment by her mother when she was eight. I just didn’t know what the trigger would be that would send her back to the bottle, and just what the path to self-destruction would be. A lot of the book is the development of this very theme.

    • Thanks for your comments. Sounds like you took a good approach with your character development. Thinking through motivations beforehand will bring the story more into focus. Thanks again.

  6. This is great advice. I always try to develop my characters as people, with desires and hurts and motivation. If you want to take a look at my character development process, you can check out my blog, djstearns.authorsxpress.com. I would love to hear what you have to say.

  7. For me it is constant conflict. Just when you (as a reader) think the character has overcome the odds, it is your duty (as the writer) to throw a spanner into the works or create a whole new set of problems for him/her. Up hill struggles make for good reading.

    • Thanks for your comment. I agree. Conflict and tension must be present in every scene. It’s also useful to think through conflict on two levels: the MC’s outer conflicts (external forces that are stopping him from reaching his goal) and inner conflicts (those internal demons that plague him). Throwing problems at your character is another good technique but these problems must grow organically from previous events or the reader will perceive them as contrived. Thanks again.

    • Thanks for your comment. I agree. Conflict and tension must be present in every scene. It’s also useful to think through conflict on two levels: the MC’s outer conflicts (external forces that are stopping him from reaching his goal) and inner conflicts (those internal demons that plague him). Throwing problems at your character is another good technique but these problems must grow organically from previous events or the reader will perceive them as contrived. Thanks again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s