Character motivation gives your character the power to drive his story, but a properly motivated character will also take your writing far beyond plot.
Character Motivation, the Why
Do you ever watch a movie and scream in frustration at the screen, thinking why are you doing that? You idiotic character, that makes no sense! The lone babysitting teenager who hears a noise and creeps down into the basement is a cliché for bad writing—the babysitting teenager a flat stereotype—and there’s a reason. Anyone with intelligence above a box of rocks would know better than to do such a thing. But beyond that, her actions are unexplainable, well, other than the scriptwriter needing her to get downstairs to get hacked to pieces. Characters and their motivations must drive the plot and not the other way around. Otherwise, plot is just stuff that happens, and the quickest way to disengage your reader is to have action with no reason behind it.
Character Motivation, the Enemy of Writer’s Block
Character motivation can also power you through one of the most common and sneaky forms of writer’s block. At a Loss for What-Happens-Next? Properly motivate your character, and then think of your story through the point-of-view of your lead and you will never wonder what happens next. But your reader will, and that’s exactly where you want them…unable to put your book down.
Character Motivation, the Internal Motivation
Next, dig deeper and go beyond the surface of action/reaction and what happens. Move from external motivation to internal. Really get under your character’s skin, into his or her head and even burrow beneath the level of consciousness. Build a deeply motivated character and things will happen! And the best part of character motivation: your character will feel like a real person and will truly be an individual who becomes dynamic to your reader and the story.
What about Fear?
Use not only your character’s wants and desires, but also their fears to drive your story. If you are writing about a coal miner, yes, wanting a better life is a key motivator, but dig deeper. When his motivation comes from a place of fear—fear for his family, fear of not being able to provide for them or visions of his little boy growing up to live the same difficult and dangerous life. These fears add power to the reader/character connection. Go even deeper. Why is this so important to him? What happened to cause this fear to take hold? What is at the core of his need to protect his family? And for added drama and interest, give your miner a dash of claustrophobia so the reader sees him dig for courage every day of his life. We will get pulled into his world, his fears will love him for his sacrifice, and will connect with him and the story.
Interweave Character and Plot with Character Motivation
Be sure every action is motivated, and your character and plot will be so interwoven, one won’t be possible without the other. The Hunger Games, a YA mega-bestseller by Susanne Collins, shows the power of character motivation. The protagonist, Katniss, is momentarily shocked when her little sister’s name is chosen out of a lottery. The randomly selected names are for participants to enter the Hunger Games—a televised fight to the death. Katniss steps up to take her sister’s place. By the time this happens, we understand what her sister means to her, and this action proves how she cares for her little sister more than herself. Going deeper, Katniss has lived through the loss of her father who she loved dearly. As the story unfolds we come to understand how the fear of losing a loved one is embedded in the protagonist. And wow, do we connect! Add to that the plot-driven incentive to stay alive, and Katniss is one motivated character.
Always think of a story in terms of character motivation. Dig deep and find out the primal, core fear of the character. Your story will take on new meaning as your character becomes real. Get motivation right and the plot and character will grab the reader and won’t let go.
Award-winning novelist Kathy Steffen teaches fiction writing and speaks at writing programs across the country. Additionally, Kathy is also published in short fiction and pens a monthly writing column, Between the Lines. Her books, FIRST THERE IS A RIVER, JASPER MOUNTAIN and THEATER OF ILLUSION are available online and at bookstores everywhere. Check out more at www.kathysteffen.com