We all want interesting characters. People who fascinate us. People who make readers feel intrigued. People who do more than sit in the garden and gaze at the grass. And we’ve all read books where, even if the characters aren’t spending every minute gazing at the grass, they aren’t doing much else to make the story exciting, either.
A brand new writer faced with such a scenario might decide, “Hey, I know what’ll make this story exciting: a kidnaper jumps out of the rosebushes!”
Or “he gets bitten by a snake carrying some rare disease!”
Or “she falls in love with the gardener who’s already married!”
Those could certainly start a story moving, all right.
But do you see what’s missing?
If this character is the type of person who — even when confronted by the danger of kidnappers or the trauma of a rare disease or the hopelessness of impossible love — doesn’t do anything to change their situation, the reader’s going to get bored.
Picture this poor snake-bitten hero. His eyes are swelling shut; his skin is burning with fever; and after three days in bed staring at the ceiling fan…
…he’s now feeling better. So he goes out to sit in the garden and gaze at the grass.
Or picture a heroine falling in love with the married gardener. She wishes he’d leave his wife, but she doesn’t do anything to make that happen. She just plucks petals off the daisies and imagines now nice it would be if he loved her.
The story isn’t GOING anywhere, right?
That’s because it’s missing something. Not just action, but the most important ingredient:
The character’s driving force.
Our main characters need to be driven by something. Not simply an external mission like “escape the kidnaper” or “avoid the snake” or “murder the gardener’s wife,” although those are all perfectly understandable goals.
For that matter, so are goals like “win an Olympic gold medal” or “discover a cure for cancer” or “find where the stagecoach robbers hid the loot.”
But those aren’t enough. What’s going to keep us interested the entire time a character is working to win that medal or find that cure or thwart those robbers?
What makes THIS character different from someone else who’s ALSO driven by the desire for Olympic victory or medical discovery or recovered treasure?
Something vital — their motivation.
Motivation is the heart of GMC.
You’ve heard about the magical trio of goal-motivation-conflict, right? Debra Dixon is the first writer I know of who used that phrase to describe the essential elements of a story. And the fact that motivation’s in the center shows how vital it is.
Let’s look at some character (say, named Chris) who wants to win the Olympic gold medal in swimming. What’s driving Chris?
Maybe it’s the desire to feel superior. Or to achieve fame. Or to honor a beloved coach.
Regardless of motivation, this character’s ACTIONS aren’t going to change. Chris is going to be training, practicing, working and straining and striving to be the very best swimmer at the Olympic Games no matter what caused the desire for a medal.
But each one of those motivations will make Chris a different person.
For instance, think about someone who wants to feel superior. Think about someone who wants celebrity. Think about someone who wants to reward a mentor.
Three different people, right?
Which one are you writing about?
That’s crucial to know.
Or is it someone else you’re writing about? For instance, how would good old Chris be different if driven by some OTHER reason for wanting the gold medal?
Suppose it’s a quest for atonement. Or money. Or love.
Again, those three would be very different people, reacting to the same setbacks and triumphs in very different ways…depending on what drives them.
Motivation is not only a driving force, it also makes the character consistent.
The actions and beliefs and decisions of someone with a strong motivation will make sense to the reader — even if there are times when fellow characters don’t realize what’s driving Chris way deep down. And that’s okay. Chris might not (yet) realize it either.
That’s because characters, just like the rest of us, don’t necessarily know motivates them.
After all, they might be so busy working to win the Olympic swimming medal or cure cancer or find the stagecoach-robbery loot that they don’t even stop to think about why they’re doing this.
Which is fine.
They don’t need to, right up front.
But the author does.
Because as the plot unfolds and the character makes decisions, readers who wonder why they’re driven to do X instead of Y or to value A instead of B are gonna need an answer. THAT’s what keeps the story intriguing and believable, both at the same time.
If you’ve ever found yourself reading a story and thinking “That doesn’t seem like something this person would do,” you’ve come across a character whose motivation isn’t well-defined.
The author never figured it out.
And we’ve all seen books where that’s painfully obvious. Books where people act in whatever way the plot demands, even though it seems out of character.
For a plausible character, there’s gotta be a driving-force motivation.
Do you know what it is?
By the way, that’s a prize-drawing question. If at least 20 people post “a character in this book I’m reading or writing now or a few years ago is/was motivated by ____,” one’ll win free registration to my four-week Plotting Via Motivation class at WriterUniv.com in March.
So if you’ve got some character in mind, either one of your own or one in a book you’ve read, think about what lies behind this person’s goal. What motivates them? You don’t need to identify the book title / author unless you want to, but DO identify the character’s driving force.
And we’ll wind up with a fabulous collection of motivations!
(who can’t wait to see what those might be)
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Laurie Schnebly Campbell combines her advertising agency work with a background in counseling as well as writing fiction for Harlequin Special Edition — where she won RT’s Best Of The Year over Nora Roberts — and non-fiction, like her book on using enneagrams to create characters.
She began teaching classes online every month at WriterUniv.com, and in person around the English-speaking world, after seeing a bumper sticker that changed her life: “Those who can, do. Those who believe others can ALSO do, teach.”
Photo credits: www.FreeStockPhotos.biz