Motivating Characters

Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.” CS Lewis

Part of the purpose of this blog is to share my writing adventure as I learn to write. That means not only sharing my accomplishments, but also highlighting the mistakes that I have made and the lessons that I have learned from those mistakes. Hopefully, after making the mistake just once. Like any good story there must be points where the protagonist succeeds and fails. Let’s pretend that I’m Catholic, and you are my story-writing Priest to whom I must confess my sins…

Experienced authors say that your first few books are likely to be complete rubbish, fit only to feed a fire and perhaps entertain your nearest-and-dearest. Very few authors have publish-worthy material in their first, second, third… Maybe – and it’s a big maybe – by the sixth book your written work is worthy of seeing the light of published day. Or it might take longer than that.

One mistake that I have made is that I didn’t define my characters well enough and it has really hurt the quality of my story, and made writing it harder.

You’ll see the progress bar (on the right) for Vengeance Will Come is ticking along fairly slowly. This reflects not only my work and other-life commitments, my bad revising technique (a future post) and the trouble that I made for myself with poorly-defined characters.

The irony is that at the time I thought I was being smart. I was being a discovery writer (aka ‘pantser’) and letting my characters define themselves. I was leaving my options open with some characters: goody or baddy? I hadn’t decided. The problem was that instead of strong characters I created characters who had more personalities than an accomplished actor and as much authenticity as the average politician. My characters weren’t hot or cold, but luke warm. I didn’t know clearly what motivated them so I didn’t know how they should respond to other characters or plot events. I was trying to hedge my bets which resulted in me losing all of my money. Messy. Inconsistent. Uncompelling. Three words you don’t want to describe your characters.

I needed to decide what motivated my characters. What would compel them to act and what influences determined how they would act?

“Well, the thing about great fictional characters from literature, and the reason that they’re constantly turned into characters in movies, is that they completely speak to what makes people human.” Kiera Kinghtley

Protagonists and antagonists can and should be driven by a mix of noble and ignoble motivations. Characters that are driven by only noble motivations will come out looking too-good-to-be-true. Like Superman – sickly sweet. It just doesn’t ring true and though we might want to have his super powers but we can’t particularly relate to him. Likewise, if there is nothing redeeming at all about a character, we won’t enjoy reading about them. We want our readers to relate to our characters, so they keep turning pages and enjoy the story.

What do I mean by noble and ignoble motivations? We can be motivated not only by our desires and dreams for good but also by our fears, historical skeletons and vices. There’s nothing particularly noble about being motivated by an irrational fear of clowns but that is reality for some people. (Not discounting that some clowns are scary). Those individuals will be react entirely differently to most people if a clown car pulls up next to them. Similarly, the ‘bad guys’ are seldom motivated by pure evil for the sake of being pure evil. The classic example is the serial killer who is a serial killer because of a troubled childhood. They are motivated by the actions of others or medical issues not just because they are evil in-themselves. Motivations can be both a source of strength and a weakness.

“I think everybody goes through changes, and the same should be said for fictional characters…” Peter Dinklage

Motivations should be consistent but not absolute. We want our characters’ motivations to be consistent or at least to change in a natural way throughout the story. The protagonist, unless they are bipolar should not swap between ecstatic and manic every other chapter. Consistency does not mean absolute, however. For example, I really love my wife and a lot of the time I am motivated by that love but there are sometimes when I act selfishly (in spite of that love). That doesn’t mean I love my wife any less, it just means that I am a complex being who doesn’t always act in a consistent or always sensible manner.

We’re not robots, and neither should our characters be. Some characters are “the permanent good guy”, but I find those characters dull. However a caution: We should explain through the story why the character is acting contrary to a motivation, by revealing the contrasting motivation. Motivations can clash. I love writing, but I also know that I need to sometimes move away from the keyboard to have a social life. I would rather stay home and write every day, but I also have a sense of duty to provide for my family and “do the right thing”. Tension within a character and between characters is the meat of stories.

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” Archimedes

Character motivations should also be plot-worthy; meaning that they are realistic motivations that will help to drive your plot. An example of my failure: My antagonist Menas Senay has a long-term loyal side-kick Terefi who was going to become… less loyal. Originally I had planned that this “loss of respect” would be due to Menas Senay becoming a lazy glutton… While this could be true under extreme circumstances (e.g. if Terefi was obsessively-compulsively-driven) it’s a weak motivation. Decades of loyalty should not be undone so easily. Recognising this issue, I went back to the drawing board and re-worked the character, motivations and tweaked the plot accordingly. Now I have an entirely plausible and consistent motivation (if I do say so myself) that much better supports the plot.

Whether your character is the hero or the villain they should be convinced that they are the hero of their own story. This is done brilliantly in the TV series Daredevil. The antagonist (played wonderfully by Vincent D’Onofrio) is absolutely committed to the idea that he loves his city, even while he pulls it down around him. Even someone who is really bad, revels in the fact that they are excellently bad.

Another good piece of advice I got from the WritingExcuses podcast was to not overdo a character trait, which would make it a parody. This was true also for poor old Menas. To tie in with his (previously) lazy persona, almost every time he opened a scene he was eating… I had unwittingly made him into a parody.

Finally, on this post which was longer than I had intended, write it down. There is no point coming up with great character motivations if you don’t record them. While it might be fresh in your mind now, you might have to come back to the manuscript months later … and you want to have the flavour of the characters readily accessible.

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