The Skill List Project: Character Motivation

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time, I said we’d look at one of the most important aspects of characterization: motivation. Why do your characters do what they do? And how do you communicate that to readers?

What Makes Us Act

We act from a combination of reason, emotion, and habit. Moment by moment, habit dominates our activities more than the other two—most of the time, we aren’t rationally choosing our actions or being driven by strong feelings, we’re just following habitual patterns. But habitual action is usually downplayed in fiction, for several reasons: first, because habits tend to be uninteresting, inexplicable, or both; second, because stories are typically about people who have fallen out of their comfort zones and who therefore can’t rely on their normal habits of living; third, because writers (and our society in general) prefer to think of people as rational beings making clear-headed decisions or emotional beings compelled by fierce psychological forces. It’s just not dramatic to suggest that a lot of the time, we’re running on autopilot.

(I don’t just mean obvious habits like the way you brush your teeth or tie your shoes. Let me offer an example: chocoholics. When people rhapsodize about chocolate, how often are they seriously in the throes of desire, and how often are they simply reeling off a standard schtick on autoplay? Or another: your favorite complaint about other people’s driving. There’s plenty of stuff I rant about when I see drivers do it on the street, but I have to admit my rants usually just run on autopilot. My annoyance isn’t spontaneous, it’s a stock routine I’ve developed over the years without thinking much about it. The routine starts playing when it gets triggered. I’m not angry so much as I’m doing anger.)

(And now that I think of it, that last paragraph was yet another patterned rant. We all have these prerecorded diatribes that come tumbling out, even when it feels as if we’re thinking deeply.)

Never underestimate habit as a driving force in a person’s life. In fiction, however, habit is mostly reserved for secondary characters. If a minor character is obstructive, or smarmy, or flighty, or motherly, you don’t have to dig down into the reasons—that’s just the character’s way. But for major characters, readers want more. Even in the crudest melodrama, the capital-V Villain needs grounds for being villainous. It’s not enough to say, “Hey, he’s just an asshole”…even though in real life, many people truly are just assholes out of habit, not for any direct reason.

Emotions Rule

Setting habits aside, we’re left with reason and emotion. In fiction, emotion rules; characters may devise intricate logical plans to achieve their goals, but the goals themselves must have emotional roots. Even when a goal has a “dispassionate” payoff—for example, when a character just wants to make a lot of money—there must be emotion underneath. Why does the character feel that making money is important? Why is (s)he pursuing that, as opposed to some other desirable goal (e.g. romance, friendship, personal power, social approval)?

A major character needs a need. In fact, (s)he usually needs multiple, conflicting needs; otherwise, you get a single-note character who’s too simple to hold your readers’ attention. Your character may need to win society’s approval, but also to demonstrate his/her power over people…and therein lies a dilemma, since lording it over people will earn social disapproval pretty darned quick. A character who is tugged in (at least) two directions is less predictable, more nuanced, and more interesting than a one-trick pony.

Furthermore, a writer should know why a character has these needs. What specific incident or set of conditions made these needs more overwhelming than other possibilities? Why is a particular character obsessed with sex, while another may like sex just fine but be driven by achieving fame?

As I just said, you need to conceive a specific incident or set of conditions that led to the motivation: a backstory. This doesn’t have to appear in the novel itself—personally, I don’t have much patience for books that start with the protagonist’s childhood or that devolve into lengthy flashbacks later on; I’m hard-pressed to think of an example that doesn’t feel like the real story is put on hold while the author trots out material that should have stayed hidden in some notebook—but still, the writer should know specifically why characters need what they need. Specific incidents give specific shape to the character’s specific needs.

As an example, let’s look at revenge. Lots of SF characters are driven by the desire for revenge; I dare say it’s overused, but it can still work if you don’t just latch on to it as an easy excuse. (“Hey, why is this Villain being such a shit? Cuz the Hero made him look stupid when they were kids. Good enough!”) The specific nature of a character’s grievance will color what the character eventually does. Wanting revenge on the people who killed your mother is a different emotional landscape than wanting revenge on someone who beat you out for valedictorian. They may both lead to extravagant reprisals, out of all proportion with the original cause—SF is full of characters who slaughter thousands to avenge a single death, or even a single insult—but the nature of the original injury still shapes the character’s actions.

The writer needs to know why a character needs revenge. Does the reader need to know it too? Yes…but maybe not in gory detail. A three-page flashback may do the job just fine—better than a fifty-page prologue. Or not. Different books have different needs, and deciding what to leave out is as much of a part of writing as choosing what to put in. Still, the rule remains: whether or not you ultimately share background details with the reader, you, the writer, have to know what makes your characters tick.

One last note: cause and effect are tricksy things. People can react differently to the same event. Think of something momentous like 9-11; the effects on people varied widely. It spurred some people to become more kind and thoughtful; it spurred others to become more angry and peremptory; and for others, it had no discernible long-term effect. The same applies to “smaller” events…a death in the family, for example. No two people in the family will react in exactly the same way. Some family members may be significantly changed by the death. Others won’t. The reasons why are seldom clear, one way or another.

Ultimately, the motivations you give your characters will reflect your own understanding of human nature. Why do people do what they do? Writers have to come up with reasons, even if, in real life, it’s all a total mystery.

On That Note…

What more can I say about characterization? I think I’ll move on to a new subject in the next post: perhaps the misunderstood minefield of theme. In the meantime, as always, I’ll turn the podium over to you—what are your thoughts on establishing a character’s motivation?

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There are 5 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Mary

    You can use habit to make your character act like an idiot on occasion, because it’s a habit that is stupid in the next context but had been prudent of old.

  2. 2. Roger Bourke White Jr

    Character development is one of the most important aspects of writing a book- nothing can doom a book quite like lack of character development. These are qualities that had to be taken into account with my own novel. I’ve definitely covered the “emotions rule” and “what makes us act” aspects with Dahlia Rose- check out my site and tell me what you think!

  3. 3. IB

    Great article! I teach my screenwriting students many of the same things, and I also tell them, as a minimum, always remember this: THREAT OR BRIBE. Any character will act if threatened or bribed!

  4. 4. James Alan Gardner

    Here’s something I want to add to the main post, as an example and clarification of “Emotions rule”. NO ONE EVER DOES ANYTHING FOR MONEY…not in real life, and definitely not in fiction. We may say that we’re doing something for the money, but we’re actually doing it in pursuit of some emotional need; the money is only a means to an end, or a symbolic stand-in. We want money for status, or security, or to give our kids a better life, or for power, or to buy some specific thing that we think will ease the pain of our day-to-day existence. These kinds of things are a character’s true motivation — if you’re just at the level of “he’s doing it for the money” (or anything equally superficial), you don’t yet have a usable character.

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Author Information

James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.

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