by Sharla Rae
Recently, at one of our WITS critique meetings, we found ourselves asking why one of our partner’s characters was doing something that appeared illogical. The writer explained it wasn’t illogical at all. It fit her character’s motivation. To which we replied, “what motivation? Shouldn’t you clue us in so we’ll understand her actions?" She frowned a little and said, “I really didn’t want to reveal everything up front, for fear of spoiling the story.”
I proposed that she should reveal all the character’s motivations to the reader, but leave the other characters in the story ignorant. Thus, readers know what the other characters don’t. This actually heightens the tension in the story for the reader.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We’ve all made the mistake of holding too much back. In fact it’s a very common mistake when starting a new story. That said, leaving out character motivations can turn a potentially great book into a corpse.
Characters can walk and talk, cry their eyes out and howl with laughter and still be pronounced dead on arrival. Unless readers know why characters are doing all those things, that is, what motivates them, the story lacks a heartbeat.
Motivation is not just the heart of every character; it’s the heart of the story. It breathes life into characters and pumps the action that moves the characters toward their goals.
Don’t roll your eyes yet. I know that all writers understand the importance of motivation. But I also know after judging many contests that some authors hold back on motivations for the wrong reasons.
Two Most Common Reasons for Hiding Character Motivation
- “I don’t want to give away the character’s secrets too soon; I want to surprise the reader at the end.”Readers are surprised all right! The characters run amuck, acting, reacting and saying things for no apparent reason. Without clear motivations, the book and its characters are as soulless as wooden puppets on strings.
Readers don’t empathize with puppets and won't read far enough to find the "surprises."Knowing character motivations allows readers to identify with them, root for or against them and experience the story’s adventure through them.
- “I’m afraid the suspense or the story tension will be lost.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, knowing character motivations heightens story tension because often the motivations and goals of one character interfere with those of another. Part of the fun of reading a story is discovering how everything knits together in the end.
Yes, there are exceptions to the rule. We’ve all read mysteries where a secondary character turns out to have unknown motivations that upset the apple cart. The author gets away with this technique by never allowing the reader into this character’s point of view. However, through other characters, and discoveries made along the way, the author will drop clues that all is not what it appears on the surface.
Still, the above scenario is not the norm. In most cases, it’s not only okay for readers to know “all” character motivations, it’s necessary to understanding their actions. It’s necessary to keep the story's heart beating.
So how ’bout it? Has your story’s heart ever skipped a few beats? What was your mistake and how did you fix it?