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

A Danger of Goal-Setting

Earlier this week, I began to rewrite and revise “The Sin of His Father.” I set a goal of reading aloud and reworking the story line for five chapters daily. Yesterday, I had fallen behind by a few chapters and was working furiously to try to catch up. In order to do that, I almost succumbed to the temptation to ignore a glaring gap in the story line that called for more extensive narration in order to better expose the internal conflicts of the protagonist.

This morning I realized the error of that thought process and understand that the goal of five chapters a day could serve to undermine the purpose of revision. Far better, perhaps, to set a goal related to the amount of time each week spent rewriting. Quality supercedes quantity.

Wordsmith Wednesday–Sensory Description

I am a visual, hands-on learner. My husband is more auditory. If I’m sitting through a lecture, I need to take notes in order to incorporate the key points being delivered. David will just sit, listen and absorb.

In the same way, people differ in their favored modes of sensory perception. You may want to touch or taste, while your friend will associate sounds, colors or aromas with a place or event. That’s why it’s important to evaluate your descriptions in terms of the senses. Make sure you haven’t just focused on those things that speak to you.

I’d like to share with you some examples from the opening chapter of my novel, “The Sin of His Father.” The protagonist is at the deathbed of his mother. Here’s how I’ve tried to incorporate the senses:

Sight: “The dim light threw his mother’s profile into an eerie silhouette. It was as though someone had let the air out of a grotesque balloon–the parody of an Irish washer woman paraded down Columbus Drive in downtown Chicago on St. Paddy’s day…”

Taste: “…the taste of bitter coffee he’d sipped a few hours earlier crept up his esophagus and caused him to gag.”

Hearing: “Ellen’s roommate breathed slowly before turning in her sleep. That was the only sound Matt heard, aside from his mother’s raspy breathing, the bubbles of the oxygen humidifier and the gentle hiss of the gas escaping around the small prongs sticking in her nose.”

Touch: “He fondled the smooth bowl of the pipe that waited for his attention in the pocket of his jacket and longed to step outside to indulge his habit.”

Smell: “His mother’s fetid breath stroked his cheek. He wanted to flee the close air of the room and take off into the night.”

Attention to sensory descriptions throughout the process of rewriting is an excellent way to enrich your manuscript.

Writing exercise. Select a key scene from one of your stories or a poem and rewrite it, utilizing all of the senses in your descriptions.

Spring Cleaning

My current excuse for not writing is spring cleaning. True–it was 28 degrees in Reno this morning and snow flurries are dusting the tomato plants that my husband has covered with plastic and green sheets. It hardly feels like spring.

Clearing out “stuff” is a symbolic ritual–a sort of beginning anew to which the season invites us. We’re invited to prune from our lives those things which impede our growth in all dimensions: mental, spiritual, physical and emotional. The unparalleled sense of freedom that comes with detachment opens the way to new growth.

Once I’ve un-cluttered my life in this way, I will turn to un-cluttering my writing–revising my second novel.  If I remember correctly, in his book, “On Writing,” Stephen King recommends cutting your manuscript by 10% (it’s been a while since I read it) and I recently read an article with an even more stringent criterion of 30%. The bottom line: cut out extraneous words and scenes that don’t move the plot forward.

 “Write tight!” (sic)