I’ve been getting a lot of good questions lately, and I really appreciate it. However, even though Gene’s question about editing and meddling came first, I’m going to save it for next week, on the grounds that it’s about the business end, and I’ve been talking a fair bit about that lately and feel it’s time to get back to some craft stuff. I will get to it, though!
Meanwhile, I’m going to go with Emily’s request for a post about characters and their motivations. That’s pretty open-ended, but motivation is one of those basic character things where there’s plenty enough to talk about without further direction.
People (and therefore characters) have reasons for everything they do. Sometimes, those reasons are simple and obvious (the clerk at the Walgreens counter rings up your purchase because that’s his job); other times, the reasons are complicated and unclear, with roots that reach far back into a person’s past. One way or another, though, there’s always a “because” in there somewhere – because she promised, because he likes working with his hands, because they enjoy a challenge, because he’s afraid of pain/spiders/dogs/the dark, because she had a bad experience when she was eight, because, because, because.
The reasons people do things can be simple – because it’s the only way to survive – or they can be complex – partly because she’s ambitious, but partly because she likes the challenge, and partly because she really does want to help. They can be external – because that squeaky door hinge is going to drive her crazy if she doesn’t oil it – or they can be internal – because he can’t stand the thought of being betrayed again. They can be a desire to get or achieve something – because he wants that position, that ship, that girl; because she wants to become the best magician ever – or they can be a desire to avoid something – because she doesn’t want to go to jail, because he doesn’t want to feel pain, because they don’t want the kingdom overrun. Motivations can be obvious – because the dragon is right there; run away! – or they can be obscure – because he reminds her of a second-cousin she hasn’t seen in thirty years and has never mentioned to her traveling companions.
It is, however, very important to remember that “because the plot says they have to” is not a motivation.
The plot is what the story looks like from the outside. The characters are inside the story; the plot may say they have to do X, but in order for that action to look and feel believable to readers, the characters have to have their own reasons for doing what they do. And those reasons have to be consistent with what the reader knows (or will learn) about the characters in the course of the book, or the reader very likely won’t believe in the character (and by extension, the plot).
Not all reasons have to be spelled out extensively, any more than every action the character takes has to be described in grim detail. Yes, George got up, showered and shaved, combed his hair, dressed, and had breakfast; 99.9% of the time, the author doesn’t need to mention that, much less go into detail about the position of the bed, the temperature of the shower, the type of soap, etc. About the same percentage of the time, the author doesn’t need to mention why George does these things – habit, fastidiousness, childhood training, etc. – because neither the actions nor the reason behind them is particularly important to the story, the character, or the reader.
Generally speaking, the spear-carriers and walk-ons, the grocery store bagger, cab driver, palace guard, maid, messenger, etc., who appear just long enough to bag the groceries, ferry the character from A to B, deliver the message – those characters don’t need motives for their actions beyond “it’s their job.” Even the charmingly chatty cab driver seldom needs more than “because he likes talking to people” as his reason for going on for a couple of pages.
The more important a character is to the story, the more carefully the writer needs to look at his/her motivation to make sure it holds up – that it’s believable emotionally and strong enough to explain why the character takes the actions he/she takes.
That doesn’t mean the motivation always has to be complicated and deep. “Because I don’t want the bad guys to kill me” is pretty simple and straightforward, for instance, and as long as the reader believes it, it can work well for everything from a straightforward action-adventure to a complex psychological thriller where nothing is quite what it seems and “the bad guys” keep changing from page to page. The reverse is also true – having a straightforward adventure plot doesn’t mean that the characters’ motives can’t be complex,
What motivation does have to be is plausible. That means the reader has to believe that this particular character would do whatever-it-is in this particular situation, for this particular reason. Not that “a girl” or “an alien” or “an Australian” or “a soldier” or “a redneck” or any other generic type or category of person would do this – what has to be believable is that Blytzmi, the Rigelian pipefitter who was raised in an isolated space colony, would do this for these reasons. Or that Indria, the runaway princess-turned-mercenary who’s spent three books now looking for revenge and who has no sense of humor whatever, would do it.
Because one of the other really important things to remember about motivation is that it is personal and individual. What works for one character won’t necessarily work for another, no matter how similar they are or seem to be. Also, people change over time, and so do their reasons for doing things…even if what they’re doing are the same things they’ve been doing for the last 200 pages. What started off as just a job may become a patriotic duty, or something done out of friendship rather than merely for money.
Finally, I want to add that as with many, many things in the writing process, figuring out the motivation of the characters is something that some writers do consciously, but other writers do intuitively. You may need to lay everything out clearly in your notes so that you can keep it obscure-but-consistent in your writing, or you may write by feel and only realize what your characters’ real reasons are when you get to the climax, or after. It really doesn’t matter, as long as the end product is a bunch of characters whom the readers will believe have their own individual reasons for whatever they’re doing…whether the readers ever actually find out what they are, or not.