Originally Published on MurderSheWrites Blog May 16, 2011 and slightly edited for this posting.
IMPORTANCE OF CHARACTER MOTIVATION
I was judging some contests recently, and it got me to thinking about something. For a book to work, character motivation is crucial.
Character motivation is the “why” factor. As writers, we are promising our readers answers that we often don’t get in real life. Readers needs to know why. Character motivation is the driving force behind every decision and choice the character will make. Plot and conflict are just as vital, but if the motivation is not there, then characters become flat and one-dimensional. And we get things like the Too Stupid to Live heroine. Here’s an example my older novella, GOOD, BAD & SEXY.
A heroine leaves town and goes to a resort, missing a court date for an Assault and Battery charge. One that should have been cleared up pretty easily if she had just gone to court.
Too stupid to live, right? Why would anyone want to read about her?
But what if the woman has a stalker and no one believes her? Not even her family? In fact, what if her family has a history of not believing her? What if she is being proactive, protecting her life while trying to find out who is stalking her?
Okay, not so stupid now. Once we understand her character motivation, we can understand her decisions. And in fact, we (hopefully) begin to sympathize with her and root for her.
But that’s just the beginning. We must keep going deeper to the internal conflict. For the novella, I showed Lexie always rescuing her family. When her mom had a heart attack, Lexie rescued them by taking over her mom’s wedding planning business even though she hated it. Because this was a novella, I didn’t have a lot of room for long backstory, but I made sure to show a pattern of the family using her while ignoring her dreams and fears (like a stalker).
For Nick, I had to motivate him as a loner. So in his backstory, he was involved with a woman in trouble. Nick had sworn to protect her, and failed. Instead he watched her die. Never again would he fall in love and fail someone. Never. And he fights the growing need to protect Lexie—until he realizes that this woman is smart and protecting herself.
Once I have those, I can figure out their internal conflict which usually stems from a character’s deepest fears. So we know Lexie has an unsupportive family, right? They use her, never caring about her own goals. Guess what her internal conflict is as far as love? She’s looking for love from a man who will support her dreams, or believe her when she says she’s in trouble.
And for Nick…this is too easy. His deepest fear is failing someone else he loves, so he can’t fall in love. Nick is all about one-night-stands, and no long term relationships.
Now their romantic conflict is clear: Lexie wants long term, deeply supportive love—the one thing Nick is afraid of. He’d been there, done that and has the emotional scars. Nick will go to any lengths to avoid that pain, while Lexie will go to any lengths to avoid being used and discarded.
So when Nick, a bounty hunter, goes after Lexie to bring her in for a missed court date, and finds out that she’s not too stupid to love, but too smart to die…he comes face to face with his deepest fear. A woman in trouble, one that he quickly grows to care about.
Back to the contest entries I judged: One was so good, I am still thinking about it weeks later. That is some great character motivation!