Wordsmith Wednesday–Character Motivation

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Have you ever met someone who doesn’t seem to want to go anywhere in life? We might call these people lazy. A risk of retirement (as I’ve encountered among some people of my generation) is the failure to develop goals or interests they will pursue when their time is no longer dominated by the demands of the workplace. People who have no sense of direction in life can come across as b-o-r-i-n-g. The same can be true of fictional characters we develop if they fail to show motivation.

Have you ever set aside a novel or short story on account of a character who falls flat? Chances are, that’s because the author has not engaged you right off the bat by presenting a protagonist who has to face challenges in order to get something he or she wants. The driving force behind a character needs to show up early in the manuscript–I’d say within the first chapter at the latest. A novel that begins with lengthy description or back story is likely to be abandoned.

How do you, as a writer, define a character’s motivation? You should have a sense of a story arc, of the beginning and end of the novel (if not all the stuff in between). You want to see that the protagonist will have changed in some way by the end of the story. You want him to meet obstacles that he will face in order to obtain what he wants. So, ask yourself, What drives him forward?

Let’s consider some of the very basic character motivators:

Solving a mystery
Finding love
Avoiding death or pain
Saving the world
Overcoming a handicap or limitation
Achieving success
Growing up
and…you name it!
If you are unable to define your character’s motivation, perhaps you are not ready to write that novel. Be clear about the desires and needs that underlie his actions.

Don’t forget, it’s not only the protagonist who needs to have motivation. Consider this: if your hero is a detective and wants to catch the bad guy, what does that antagonist want? To avoid being caught? To get away with his crime? Maybe to kill the detective? Peoples motives conflict and that adds to the tension of the story.

Finally, when you are in the process of revising and editing your manuscript, ask yourself as you review each and every scene, How does this play into my characters’ motives? If you are unable to define the purpose of the scene with clarity, chances are you need to delete it. Or rewrite it to give it relevance in the context of the story.

By becoming aware of the play of motivation in your story and character development, you will have more success in creating a manuscript that moves the plot forward with characters who capture the attention of the reader. You will not be boring.

Previously posted October, 2010. Due to WordPress issues, I’ve had limited access to my blog this week. Hopefully, this is new to many of you. Victoria


6 thoughts on “Wordsmith Wednesday–Character Motivation

  1. Thank you for reminder to people the plot with needs. Otherwise? Well it’s all plot. Thanks for post.


  2. Jamie Dedes says:

    Well done, Victoria. Thank you! I think you are collecting the material for small fiction writer’s handbook.

    Yes! WordPress has had quite a few “issues” of late. Surprising.


  3. trisha says:

    thanks a lot victoria. very good points. you truly are a wonderful person.


  4. Very useful advice Victoria. Thanks!


  5. I’ve also had very limited access to my blog because of a WordPress issue. I’m glad to be back on today. Thank you for some great advice on writing motivated characters. Blessings to you, Victoria…


  6. Friend and wise woman, another great post that I am copying to my How To Write folder. In these few words, you’ve given everyone who wants to write fiction a wonderful overview of what’s involved. Thanks!


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