Monday, March 19, 2012

More Character Building: Motivation

Character again. I promise to talk about the East but character IS so important to me as a writer, and sometimes even when I go back to the basics of GMC (goals-motivation-conflict), there is still something off in writing the scene. I know the goal, and I know the conflict, but the character still isn’t right.

Why. Why. Why.

It’s the one I didn’t mention in the sentence, so you know I’m going to beat MOTIVATION into the ground. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Motivation matters.

The good news is that motivation doesn’t necessarily have to be something you’d agree with. As writers we’re not here to judge our characters but understand them. And try to make other people understand them. They may still be wrong—many times they are—but it’s in understanding we begin to be more open to the variance of our world. We’re not alike in many things, but we’re not that different either. Human needs and wants are universal. The motivation for these needs and wants usually stem from the same poverty we’ve all felt at one time or another in our friendships, childhood, parental relationships, or some combination of all the above.

I don't know about you but I usually find my character's motivation stems from one of the Main Three: his childhood, his secrets, or his motto.

First, look to his childhood. A lot of us see therapists because of our childhoods; and a lot of us are still doing things as adults that have to do with our childhoods that rationally we know we don't need to do anymore. But we do them anyway. It is what it is. Now, I grant you, not everyone has the same crappy childhood. I have a friend who is so well-adjusted and has such normal parents, I want to make her a circus exhibit in a freak show. So it’s true. You don’t need to create the most hellish childhood for your character to have a great story. You can give her awesome parents, a great middle-class life, but what’s the problem with the character now? We’re either righting a wrong or recapturing something that was lost—what is your character looking for?

Second, the Big Bad Secret. I admit to having trouble with this one. I say it’s because I don’t have any secrets, but this is a lie. I have a ton and there is no way in hell I’d tell Deerhunter a 1/10th of them. They just sorta slip out individually now and again and we deal with them. He does the exact same thing. We say that the secrets are no big deal and that’s why we didn’t mention them, but I’m betting that’s not the reason. We’re not telling because we both know we’re horrible catches and if we just told everything up front, the other would run screaming in the other direction. Which was about what happened when he told me he was a Republican. Which was a while into our dating and too late to turn back the boat. I finally got over it. Mostly. I'm pretty sure everyone in a relationship does this. No one just tells their junk right out the gate; and I've been on first dates where they have and I did not ask for a 2nd date. So we know why we keep this crap secret. It needs to never be told, that's why.

But in fiction, we have to work a little cleaner. In fiction, we believe in unconditional love. You can’t leave secrets untold. The formula is secrets revealed equals Happily Ever After. Sure, sure, whatever. So not revealing leads to more and more conflict keeping it secret; the truth sets you free. Fear is revealing your secrets will make them not love me. Love is accepting your loved one’s secrets without judgment. Simple, easy to remember. We all have secrets. We’re just not telling. Figure out your character's secrets, ruin his life with them, and then make him reveal them.

The third and last character building exercise in your writer’s toolkit is the Motto. Every character has a motto. Jack Sparrow: “I can get through anything so long as there is rum.” Like that. The motto is your character’s personality in a nutshell, a touchstone to come back to if your character is acting out of character. If your character is a brawny “hit-first-ask-questions-later”, he doesn’t start talking and rationalizing a situation. That is not ACTION when he is a man of action. If he’s a professor type who thinks through everything before he makes a step, he’s not going to go into a room, guns blazing. What is their motto, what is their character in a nutshell--and is it being shown in this scene?

Okay, so summary, if you’re a little wonky in your motivation for your character or how your character should be behaving in your current scene, remember the character’s childhood—what does your character need? How is he achieving it? What is your character’s secret? What is he doing to make sure it’s never known? What is your character’s motto? How is his motto expressed in every scene he is in?

What do you do to clarify your character’s motivation in your story? What books have you read lately that demonstrate an excellent use of motivation in their characters?

42 comments:

quantum said...

I read somewhere that only about 5% of your actions can be linked to conscious thought. The subconscious is responsible for the rest. All those childhood horrors have left a massive impression on the subconscious, but you can't rationalise them away, they are part of the mould that defines who you are.

Fortunately realism isn't necessary or even desirable for motivating a fictional character. One traumatic event from the past is sufficient to motivate a character or impose fear, shyness, recklessness, seeking danger, needing love .....

That event could be revealed at the beginning, perhaps in a prologue (horrors!) or gradually revealed during the plot evolution. For a mystery flavour it is best revealed near the end of the story a la Poirot, but that's an author decision.

Hummm. I'm telling you writers how to write again! LOL

Fascinating insights here Helli ..... Would love to have you on my (analysis) couch! *smile*

Donna Cummings said...

Great post, Hellion. I wish I had something to add, but I don't -- it's perfect. And it's helping me with some revisions I'm working on today, so thanks for the perfect timing!

MsHellion said...

Q, I'm sure you are right--in fact that sounds very much true. 95% of the time, I'm racing around like a rabid squirrel on crack, making half-ass decisions that can effect the rest of my life, but usually only effects the outcome of my laundry. HOWEVER, I think it was Mark Twain who said that while life doesn't have to make sense, fiction does. So while we don't have to know why we're motivated on a day to day basis or think about our big bad secrets, or even have a modis operandi for day to day existence, our characters do. It's just one of those quirky ironies.

I agree it can only take ONE thing, big or small, to motivate or make a person act a certain way for the rest of our lives. It's a good thing that science requires you to keep repeating the situation and evaluating the outcome to make sure it's consistently true rather than basing all knowledge on just one outcome from one random event. :) The latter is not very scientific!

Random fact: I love couches!

MsHellion said...

Donna, great to see you!! I'm glad you found the post helpful! Keep us posted on your revisions. We're always glad to have you on the ship to blog about your latest published novel! :)

Scapegoat said...

Hellie - fantastic post!

Seriously the whole GMC thing is still something I'm struggling to understand with my characters and your post has made 3 simple amazing statements that I just went A-HA too.

We’re either righting a wrong or recapturing something that was lost—what is your character looking for?

Figure out your character's secrets, ruin his life with them, and then make him reveal them.

What is their motto, what is their character in a nutshell--and is it being shown in this scene?

Those 3 simple lines could replace every character sheet, etc I've tried to do but never really latched onto. This just makes so much more sense to me and how it actually affects the writing and characters instead of just a sheet of info that I look at and it seems overwhelming to try to make that into a character.

WAHOO - I know what I'm working on at lunch today. Thanks!

TerriOsburn said...

My heroine's motivation all stems from her childhood. My hero's comes from his motto. The way he lives life. Which is basically the K.I.S.S. theory - Keep It Simple, Stupid.

The heroine has all kinds of hang up due to how her life began, who her mother was, who raised her, how they raised her. It's endless. And she has secrets, which she eventually reveals to the hero. Secrets that make her believe she's unworthy.

The thing is, most of this was still a mystery when I sat down to write page one. It helps to have an idea, but a lot of the deep personal issues just kind of make themselves known as the rough draft happens.

MsHellion said...

Scapey, I'm so thrilled you found this useful! (Esp since I want to use this for one of the lessons for Bosun's and my class.)

I don't necessarily think you need to know all three of them at a given time but I think knowing at least one of them will write you out of the scene and keep you moving in your first draft. :) Later, they can be really helpful in revisions.

TerriOsburn said...

That reminds me, did you know our class was in the latest Romance Writers Report magazine? With our names. Our names are in the RWR. I got a little queasy when I saw them last night. LOL!

MsHellion said...

I agree a lot of this is clearer AFTER the fact. This is probably something better used in revisions than in the first draft, but I know I get frustrated if the scene I'm writing is WRONG. And I refuse to budge forward. I have to keep tweaking with my characters to figure out what is wrong--am I getting rid of all my conflict? Are my characters not acting in character? How can I get my conflict back and make my characters act?

Of the three, I think the motto might be the most useful for writing past a scene. Knowing how they would act NOW is useful, and knowing why they act this way is useful later when I need to show them changing and growing.

MsHellion said...

*turns green* OUR NAMES are published in RWR?

TerriOsburn said...

Yep. *gulp*

I do think motivation can definitely help you out of a scene. There are scenes you write in the rough draft that just have to be cleaned up later. Then there are the scenes you KNOW are not working and I can't move past those ones until I figure it out.

Once it was as simple as me writing my heroine as showing up late for work and she REFUSED to be late for work. But it took about five attempts at that scene to figure it out. Only when I had her show up on time did the scene work. If she'd told me she was never late BEFORE I tried writing the scene, it would have been a little easier.

Heaven forbid the characters make it easier for us. LOL!

MsHellion said...

See, I find that frustrating. You write something, because it "needs" to happen. The character won't cooperate. You write it again, slightly different. Still doesn't work. You do this about 3-7 more times before finally doing the exact opposite of what you believe needs to happen because it basically is leading your story opposite of the next plot point you need--and the character is happy and playing along. It's irksome. *LOL* We have an agenda, people! KEEP. ON. TASK!

TerriOsburn said...

To be fair, that was my first MS attempt that never got written because I had no idea what I was doing. I didn't know that character nor did I know how to get to know her. But someday, when I finally write Celi and Bryan's story, it should go much smoother.

*crossed fingers*

Now if a scene doesn't feel right, it's usually because I ended it too early. Like I thought, "It should end here" and the characters poke me in the temple saying, "But we're not done yet."

Takes less pokes than it used to, which is helpful.

TerriOsburn said...

And blogger ate my comment. Damn it!

TerriOsburn said...

Oh, NOW the comment is there. *kicks blogger*

Maureen said...

Clarity my character's motivations? Lord love a duck...do I have to do this?

Sometimes, I think I'm just too damned organic for these exercises. You want me to think about things that just...don't normally get thought about, it's just like breathing...

No, I'm not that good. I'm that disorganized!

Terrio has hit me up a lot on doing better with this stuff and I do...but I'll come back to this after I speed off to FedEx to mail something overnight...

I'm entering The Kraken's Mirror in the Prism Awards...but it has to be in NC tomorrow!

Janga said...

All the material for this course you two are teaching sounds great--and very practical in terms of connecting ideas to one's own writing.

Knowing the characters' secrets has been particularly useful for me. I agree, Hellie, that everyone has secrets. I think some of the most interesting secrets are those hidden even from the character who owns the secret. Because secrets are usually kept to protect ourselves and/or others, I think they are often tied to self-sacrifice and forgiveness, the qualities that Donald Maas identifies as the highest character qualities in Writing the Breakout Novel. Lots of rich material can be found in that mine.

Scapegoat said...

Chance - that's fantastic! Get thee to FedEx stat!

TerriOsburn said...

Chance - A lot of this comes naturally for me too but we're talking about when you're stuck. If a scene simply will not work, it's time to step back and look at the basics. Why did my character get into this mess? What's motivating him/her to get through this? What's his basic premise for how he lives his life?

Answering these questions can get you moving again. If your hero is like mine and likes life simple, he's not volunteering to run for mayor. If your heroine is like mine and taught from birth to be a people pleaser, she's not going to be able to ignore the fact that someone doesn't like her.

If your character has been cut off from her own humanity, she's not going to connect well with other humans. We're simply talking about tools to keep you going in the right direction.

Hence, the Writer's Compass.

TerriOsburn said...

And YAY!! for entering the Prism awards!!! What is their awards night theme this year?

Janga - Self-sacrifice and forgiveness, huh? Those traits play signification parts in my MS. Learning that's a good thing just made my day. LOL!

irisheyes said...

I love this blog, Hellie. It all makes such sense when you spell it out the way you do.

You don’t need to create the most hellish childhood for your character to have a great story. This is the one thing that throws me for a loop all the time. I have a hard time taking the everyday normal neurosis that my characters deal with and making them seem like they're a big deal. Because they are a big deal to them, they're what's stopping them from achieving their HEA.

I remember a therapist telling me once that abuse is abuse. Just because Sally was beaten and Robbie was ignored doesn't make her abuse any more valid than his. It's all in how it has affected them and how hard it is for them to move forward and deal with it.

Those questions you posed at the end of the blog are awesome. I think I'll print them out and tape them by the computer! They are a great way to stay on track.

irisheyes said...

Oh, and YAY on you guys teaching a course on this stuff. Sounds exciting!

MsHellion said...

Mo, organic is great. Really. I think some of the best books are organically made. (Anne Gracie--ORGANIC). This is for when you're stuck. The class Terri and I are "teaching" (I use the word loosely) is supposed to be about putting yourself back into writing when you've fallen off. Figure out why you're stuck.

If the process is working, of course you don't mess with it.

MsHellion said...

All the material for this course you two are teaching sounds great--and very practical in terms of connecting ideas to one's own writing.

Thank you, Janga, that sounds very reassuring from a veteran teacher/professor like yourself. I hope we're in the right direction of being inspiration and practical application. If there is anything we need to add (or cut to simplify), please feel free to advise. I would prefer to help writers and not ruin them entirely. *LOL*

I also agree some secrets--big secrets--are hidden from the main character so they can better function in the world. And the revealing of the secret opens up a lot freer world to live and grow in. :)

I think Terri has that book. It's one of the few craft books I don't actually own (can you believe it?) I need to get it from my library again and give it another whirl for recommendation. I'm all up for explaining what has worked for me, but definitely like to recommend more books that might also help that I have enjoyed.

MsHellion said...

Aww, shucks, Irish. Thanks! :)

I have that same problem with comparison about everything! *LOL* What's fun is when we do this because we are trying to "put it in perspective" and be grateful for what we have, which is always a great thing, but sometimes doing that belittles our experience and ignores our hurts. First you need to acknowledge you were hurt and it wasn't fair and it wasn't right, then you can be grateful. But comparison is rarely, if ever, a helpful tool.

I find having questions to ask to be a more useful writing tool than just being told something. The key to success is "Keep writing"--but to do that, you usually have to ask something to pursue, like, "What's the worse that could happen?" or "What if getting everything you wanted didn't make you happy? What is everything...and why aren't you happy?" You just need the right question to tip you in the right direction.

P. Kirby said...

"'You don’t need to create the most hellish childhood for your character to have a great story.' This is the one thing that throws me for a loop all the time. I have a hard time taking the everyday normal neurosis that my characters deal with and making them seem like they're a big deal. Because they are a big deal to them, they're what's stopping them from achieving their HEA"

Oh, boy, I hear you. With my current WIP, as usual, my hero's motivations fell into place right away, in part because he has a big, bad dramatic backstory. Schmaltz and melodrama. My heroine's issues are largely internal, and while she's already one of my favorites female characters, her motivations sometimes seem trivial by comparison. (They're not; but like her, my perceptions aren't always driven by logic.)

Anyway, it seems like ya'll have the makings of a great class. Your discussions are often helpful to me. As I was thought about your questions today, it occurred to me that my heroine and hero have issues with their [older] siblings that mirror each other rather closely. So, uh, tah-dah, epiphany!

Maureen said...

Ah, for when I'm stuck...gods, it's hard to even think about the book when I'm stuck. I seem to subscribe to the 'run away' method...

But I get what you're saying. And I'm going to put some effort into considering some of this when a scene feels like it's stuck. Though...I usually seem to concentrate on my motivation...

;-)

Let's torture the main character today! Let's make her cry today. Let's see him question if what he's doing is good for him or good for her...

BWAH HA HA HA HA!

I think this class sounds awesome and I want to pimp for it when you start taking sign ups...so...share the details!

Marnee Bailey said...

Sorry I'm late. :) But I love this topic.

First, yay about being in RWR! I haven't managed to read the mag yet, but I had to look it up online when you mentioned that. :) SO cool!!

Second, I think you're right about the motivation. Though I'd say that childhood could just be past. Because sometimes I think motivation comes out of some horrid event in adulthood that totally changes the life.

As to clarifying my own character's motivations.... I always have to wait until close to the end. Then, I always hit that 50-65K mark and I go, "Crap! What is his/her deal?" And then I start digging in to why it is that they're getting on my nerves. Usually they're acting how they think they should be acting and I'm playing catch up, trying to define what makes them tick.

MsHellion said...

P.Kirby, I love when our ramblings can bring about some epiphanies. That's always awesome! :)

Be careful of considering your heroine's internal issues trivial. *LOL* They'll sometimes let you have it and let you know just how untrivial their issues are. *LOL* Though I know we don't mean to trivialize ourselves or our characters...it seems to be something we're trained to do at an early age if we're girls.

Maureen said...

I have to say that the thing about trauma, it how personal it is. I mean, we've all seen it in real life. Those things that totally slide off on one person's back is like a lance to the heart of the next person.

I think that is why it can be tricky when deciding on those issue for characters. You have to not only decide if they are the type to feel the lance...and if they are, what does that say about them? Without judging them by the standards of how you or I might react to the event.

You want to respect your characters and allow them to experience according to their reality. Which may not be YOUR reality.

I can tell when an author doesn't believe in how their characters are absorbing the sticks and stones of life. Those are writers I don't read again.

I mean, even if I can't believe in it, they should!

MsHellion said...

Mo, the run away method is also an important aspect of the process. That's the THINKING THROUGH stage where you don't realize you're still thinking about it. But I mean, when you've decided to come back, sometimes using these thoughts can unlock something important to get you going again. That's all.

MsHellion said...

Marn, I think you're right. The Past would be a better label than "childhood" because that's more a limiting frame of time. I just put childhood because I know that's where most of my neuroses come from. *LOL* But the things that happened to a couple characters I read, they were Big Traumas that happened when they were Young Adults.

Writing with just enough to keep going--it's like that line about driving at night with your headlights. You can't see the whole distance, but you can see far enough ahead to keep going. That's definitely what I think most writing is, though we do have loose ideas of spots we'll stop at and touch on.

MsHellion said...

I think that is why it can be tricky when deciding on those issue for characters. You have to not only decide if they are the type to feel the lance...and if they are, what does that say about them? Without judging them by the standards of how you or I might react to the event.

EXACTLY! What if you're an agnostic who creates a character (even a villain) who is really religious. Religion is real to that character; her belief system is true to her...you can't make it clear as the writer you think it's crazy or it will be clear you don't respect your characters and you can easily lose faith with your readers. Though then it runs the risk of "Are you limited in the kinds of characters you can tell stories about?"

Actually I might be limited...I wouldn't be good at writing a CEO because I think they're all jerky rich people. *LOL* And that can't be true.

Maureen said...

I really need to create a character who is religious and who isn't a nutter... Would be a good challenge for me...

I think with finding the hero in the CEO...well, you'd have to see the CEO as secondary to what drives the character...

But yeah...a religious CEO who isn't a villain would be one hella stretch fer me!

MsHellion said...

I can think of several characters that would be a good stretch to me. :) It really can be difficult to create characters and not make them caricatures of who they really are. Not let the "stereotype" overwhelm the human aspects that would balance the stereotype. (I think some typing profiling is fine, but typing doesn't carry through for the entire being.) We've all got a little of everything in each of us, but we have dominant strands that show most.

Marnee Bailey said...

t's like that line about driving at night with your headlights. You can't see the whole distance, but you can see far enough ahead to keep going.

I always thought this was so true. :) But then I get to that roadblock, somewhere between 50 and 65K. Then I end up stopping and staring at my navel for unknown amounts of time. It's quite distressing.

P. Kirby said...

"I really need to create a character who is religious and who isn't a nutter... Would be a good challenge for me..."

Oddly, writing a religious character isn't difficult for me, despite being an atheist. I've know plenty of sensible Christians, Jews and even a few Muslims. (I work for a church.) I understand why they believe, even if I myself am incapable of such belief. Of course, I'm disinclined to write about a religious fundamentalist, at least, not as a protagonist, because just...bleh.

My problem with my heroine's issues isn't so much my perceptions of her motivations, but my insecurities as to how others will see them. Because, at the end of the day, I'm a quivering mass of insecurities.

MsHellion said...

Marn, it is. And yet we seem quite willing to get back into the fray of it again, aren't we? *LOL* Maybe we like the stress? At least we know if we wait long enough, the dawn will come and so will the words.

MsHellion said...

As always P.Kirby hit it upon the head:

1.) If you want to write authentic people, know lots of people authentically.

2.) And we're all nothing but quivering masses of insecurities. *LOL*

irisheyes said...

My problem with my heroine's issues isn't so much my perceptions of her motivations, but my insecurities as to how others will see them.

Exactly!!! Will they think she's a wimp, crybaby, hypochondriac, b#tch, etc. etc. etc. Will they sympathize with her or ridicule her? Will they think her issues are valid or stupid? And what will they think of me for creating her! LOL *mass of insecurities*

TerriOsburn said...

Great conversation and I had to go offline early. (Pooch is getting fixed on Friday and they had to do blood work today.) I thought the same thing about Pat's comment.

We're ALL a mass of insecurities. LOL!

I have issues from childhood, such as being the youngest and teased for being a cry baby. Which is probably why I get insecure about what the readers will think every time my heroine cries. But crying is real and it happens and I'm not going to make my heroine NEVER cry because I'm self-conscious about it.

But my trauma probably came more as an adult. I'm trusting by nature, but after being the victim of infidelity in my marriage, I struggle to trust anyone now.

Maureen said...


Exactly!!! Will they think she's a wimp, crybaby, hypochondriac, b#tch, etc. etc. etc. Will they sympathize with her or ridicule her? Will they think her issues are valid or stupid? And what will they think of me for creating her! LOL *mass of insecurities*


Well, that is when it's how you sell it. There are always going to be readers who you'll hit a sore spot with, no matter how well you write it or present it. Who will think you're being silly, etc. I saw that with reviews about The Kraken's Mirror and how different readers saw Emily.

You cannot please everyone all the time. If you believe it, write it.