The Craft
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Thoughts on Motivation

I thought we might talk a little about motivation. You know that thing that actors are always asking? “What’s my motivation?” That.

I was recently watching a movie (it will remain nameless but it rhymes with Gorilla) where the primary motivation for the majority of characters was “what will advance the plot to the next action scene?” The characters had no other plausible motivation. They made decisions that seemed to be based solely on what the director needed, not what was internally consistent for their own histories and personalities. Self-interest wasn’t invited to the party: they performed actions which made zero sense from their own personal narratives but which did lead to awesome giant monster scenes. Needless to say, I wasn’t very impressed. Actually, I was flabberghasted.

Why am I talking about this as a writer?

Because this happens with books too.

Let’s discuss.

There is a meta-level motivation for anything that happens in a book, and it’s usually (although not always) ‘to advance the story.’ Why did the villain kill the hero’s brother? (So the hero would have a reason to be in conflict with the villain.) Why didn’t the hero just make the phone call/go online/ask someone so she might have found that vital piece of information she needed? (Because otherwise the book would only be 50 pages long.) Why did the villain kidnap the girl? (Because otherwise the hero wouldn’t go after him.) Are these answers? Yes. Are these good answers? …no. No, they’re terrible.

Seriously, don’t do this.

The main answer for why a character does something should always be: because it made sense for that particular character to do so, given their background, their needs, and their motivations. Why did Joe Chill kill Martha and Thomas Wayne? Because he was skittish, strung-out, and nervous petty criminal who panicked during a mugging. Why does Loki try to conquer Midgard? Because he’s never gotten over his own insecurities about being second fiddle to his brother Thor, pushing Loki to seek out ways to embarrass, corrupt, or screw up anything his brother loves. Their actions, and the consequences of those actions, are consistent within their frameworks.

If on the other hand, a character who only exists to prop up the main character’s back story might do something that’s bluntly suicidal, just because the writer needs them to do it.

So ask yourself why something is happening in your story. An event, an action, a choice. Is the primary answer:

  • Because otherwise it destroys the main premise of your story?
  • Because it’s neat (i.e. because explosions are cool?) [This one might be okay, but be careful. It’s still laden with traps.]
  • Because otherwise the story will be shorter than you originally planned?
  • Because you need this to happen to lay the foundation for the next scene?
  • Because if this doesn’t happen, the hero has no reason to move forward (often a cause of “fridging” a love interest?)

If any of these responses resemble your own answer, you need to give serious consideration to going back to the drawing board. A yes here means the odds are good that there is a core problem with your story, and you likely can’t fix it by piling on a lot of cool scenery or neat action scenes and hoping your audience won’t notice. (Your audience will notice.)

I’m not immune to the lure of an expeditious motive (no writer is.) My husband has a talent for picking apart a scene I’ve created and asking tough questions about the motivations behind them. “Why would this character do this?” He forces me to justify my characters’ actions, which is awesome.

For example, in one of my manuscripts, the master villain kept throwing peons at the problem, and happily for the hero, the peons weren’t up to the task.  He was powerful enough that he could have easily handled the matter himself, and stepping back and letting his minions flounder around (or more to the point, tolerate any more floundering from them) just seemed coy (not a trait one associates with powerful villains.) There was no good reason the villain would show that kind of reluctance. I realized I’d been holding the villain back because I thought I needed to on a metaplot level (because that’s how it works in movies and books, right?) rather than because it’s what made sense for the villain, given his motivations and personality.

When I pulled off the self-imposed restraints, the plot sailed (and the hero was really in a whole lot of trouble, which was even better!)

Now, I’m a fan of figuring out the motivation first, the consequences second, but it can be done in reverse. Dwight V. Swain, his book Techniques for the Selling Writer, advises writers that they should decide where they need their plot direction to go, and make sure that the author gives their characters motivations which match that goal. If you need your villain to murder the hero’s father in the first act, make sure the villain’s motivation’s support that action and are consistent with that desire (did the hero’s father fire the villain? Steal his love interest? Turn him into the police? Mugging gone bad behind the Monarch Theater?) If you know you need your hero to do a given thing, work backwards and create the background or motivation which results in that action.

I admit I’m not personally a huge fan of this, but I put it out there because I recognize that just because something doesn’t work for me doesn’t mean it won’t work for you. For me, this feels a bit like begging the question, and runs the risk in a series of having characters whose motivations seem inconsistent. (I think this method might work very well for short stories though.)

My personal favorite is to create motivations for characters which conflict with each other, but are consistent to their own background, methods, and personalities. In one of my stories, there’s a man named Darius Temple who is trying to build up his community and eliminate the deprivations of both gangs and corrupt cops. That’s his motivation. He sees himself as a champion of the community — which puts him very firmly at odds with someone like gang leader Crazy Tez, who  would far prefer to destroy and dominate that same community, whom he views as an invading occupying force. Both of these men are presented as adversaries to the main character, but both men have consistent reasons for their actions. Indeed, both men would swear they are right to act as they do. The fact that their motives conflict with both the hero and each other? Perfect.

Just don’t have your character’s only motivation be getting to the next scene.

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