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!
May 5th, 2021 at 9:12 am · Link
This points to a deeper…”need” when creating characters. They all need to have at least one “fatal flaw.” That should feed into their motivations and conflict, whether personal or plot.
Since I’m deep in the current WIP, I’ll use Sade and Sinjen. She fears being abandoned by those she cares about. To compensate, she puts on a tough facade, is a bit of a control freak, and doesn’t trust easily. Her true love is a vampire–who will never grow older but she will. She’s convinced he’ll leave her. Sinjen was Templar knight with a mission, one he fully intended to die while completing. Instead, he wakes up a vampire, convinced his soul is damned for eternity. Then he meets Sade. Part of him wants to steal her humanity so she can be with him forever. The other refuses to damn her as he is.
The fun for the reader is watching the “game” play out between the hero and the heroine, and watching them learn to compensate, grow, and…well…give in.
FYI, character motivation is something you do very well. Just sayin’… 🥰
May 5th, 2021 at 2:36 pm · Link
Interesting post. As Silver states, you do a good job with character motivation.
Watching the characters figure out what is motivating their counterpart is enjoyable too. They (the guys) seem to stumble quite a bit which makes for an even more interesting read.
Sure hope you’re having a good day. I see on the weather that it is still quite warm your way and I’m guessing Maggie is missing afternoon walks again. Hopefully some cooler temps will be headed your way.
May 5th, 2021 at 5:41 pm · Link
Silver, oh yeah, the fatal flaw is part of the key of making our characters 3-dimensional and, well, flawed. Too perfect is boring. You said it well!
love Sinjen’s conflict! Sade’s is great too, but Sinjen’s really sums it up for me!
Thanks. I’m constantly rewriting to make the conflicts and internal motivation work.
Happy Hump Day!
May 5th, 2021 at 5:44 pm · Link
Viki, true! Half the battle in romance is the hero and heroine understanding what’s driving the other. Some romantic comedies do a great job of “misreading” in hilarious ways–if they are done well.
It’s kind of humid for us here today. Maggie misses her second walk, but she’s a good sport about it overall.
Hope you’re having a good day there!
May 6th, 2021 at 7:25 am · Link
Sorry I’m late again. I totally brainfarted out that yesterday was Wednesday.
Great post. I agree – you do a great job with character motivations. I’m not sure how much I actually consciously think about my own characters’ motivations while I’m writing. I had no idea starting out what made Jeni the model be such a bitch until it came out that she had low self-esteem based on the way she was treated by her mother, and I had no clue why her mother treated her that way until it popped out Mom was trying to protect her in her own twisted way. Took me all three books to figure that one out.
May 6th, 2021 at 10:26 am · Link
B.E., there’s no timetable to get here I’m just glad you come!
It was quite a twist with Jeni in your Once Upon a Dijinn books, and it explained so much about Jeni! And learning about our characters through the process is more fun.