All writers need to understand the motivation of their characters. Strong motives produce convincing storylines; weak motives make for flimsy and unconvincing stories. Your characters’ problems and desires contribute towards their motivation; but these must be logical and believable. In fact, they should be inevitable; your characters should have no choice but to act in the way they do otherwise weaknesses and holes in the plot will be revealed and the reader will not be convinced.
Let’s take the example of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’.
Why does the little girl set out that morning? Why does she stop to pick flowers? Why does she speak to the wolf? In the fairy story it all seems pretty random, but Red Riding Hood’s actions are all predestined, to bring her into contact with the wolf and to deliver the wolf to grandmother’s cottage. From obeying her mother’s wishes to take food to an ailing grandmother, to stopping on the path to pick granny’s favourite flowers, to speaking to the charming wolf and divulging vital details, everything Red Riding Hood does is inevitable.
In the same way, to discover your characters’ motivations, you have to ask them some questions:
- What do they want? Characters usually work towards a goal: the fulfillment of a childhood dream, a romantic relationship, or relief from financial hardship. A successful character will want something definite that the reader can identify clearly. But there has to be a reason for this aspiration.
- How badly do they want it? Would they die without it? Could they learn to live without it? The more the character cares about achieving their heart’s desire, the more the reader will care about it too.
- What obstacles stand in their way? The character should be constantly tested and the more difficult it is for the character to achieve his goal, the more interested the reader will be in seeing how it unfolds.
- What are they willing to do to achieve their goal? Would they lie or cheat? Would they kill? Or would the character never compromise their principles, even if it meant defeat? This is where the reader takes sides, for or against the character.
- What challenges or traumas have they experienced that contribute to their behaviour? Why is Bill considering stealing from his employer? Does he just want an easy life cushioned by money, or does he have a more sinister incentive? Did something happen in Bill’s past that is influencing his actions today?
Now that you’ve established your characters’ motivations, now is not the time to explain it all in great detail to the reader. In fact, keep all this background stuff to a minimum. Backstory should stay mainly in your head – it’s there to allow you insight into your characters’ choices and actions. Important little snippets introduced at well-chosen intervals will speak volumes, provided you understand your characters thoroughly first, which will allow you to let the reader know what they need to know.
Once you understand the source of your character’s beliefs you can find ways to ‘show’ how these events have a bearing on their present behaviour. Their motivation will be revealed through the action and dialogue and you will be able to create plausible, three-dimensional characters whose actions reflect their background – the background you have created for them – without the need to ‘tell’ the reader anything.
Great post. I flagged this page for future reference so that I keep these questions in mind while I’m working through my current outline. Poor motivation for an action can suspend the reader’s belief.
If you don’t keep asking this one question – WHY? – you can end up with a very fragile story that won’t stand up to scrutiny. 🙂
Excellent advice to keep in mind. I’m working back through one WIP based on beta feedback on exactly this issue. My mains need more motivation and higher stakes for doing what they do. It’s hard work, but it will improve the story tenfold or more.
You’re absolutely right – I’ve been doing the same thing – the hard grind will definitely improve the story, so it’s worth spending the time. 🙂