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?