Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Tracie Peterson on Character Motivation
I was talking to an editor friend the other day. We were sharing stories about problem areas in writing—areas in which even experienced authors fall victim. One of the biggest issues turned out to be the issue of character motivation.
Many times you get a great idea for a story. You have an incredible setting in mind, a wonderful action packed plot just churning in your imagination, and itching fingers to hit the keyboard. Yet somewhere in the midst of writing the story, it starts to fall apart. The pacing drags. The setting seems stale. The wonderful ideas you had for edge-of-the-seat action grinds to a halt, and you're left wondering what went wrong.
Two words: character motivation. (Or maybe better said the lack thereof.)
Your story characters have to have a reason for the choices they make and the things they do. They need to be driven, as everyone is, by internal conflicts and external goals. There has to be more to the character than a pretty face and a desire for a happy ending. They need flaws and faults, issues and miseries, joys and dreams. Without motivation, the actions of a character will seem trite or implausible. Without motivation choices and decisions seem forced or completely off-track. The story always suffers when there is a lack of motivation.
Ask yourself one important question for every character in your story: Why?
Why does this character exist? Why do they do what they do? Why do they make the decisions and choices they make? Why should this character continue to be in the story?
To know the motivation of your character, you have to know the character themselves. You have to be able to recognize if they do something out of character. And, if they do something out of character, you as the author need to help show the motivation so that the reader can accept this wild choice.
For example: Let’s have a historical setting where a mousy young woman who has obediently lived in her overbearing father’s house and adhered to every command and demand, suddenly run away from home. Why? She has to have a reason, and that reason needs to be proportionate to the degree of her acting out of character. She isn’t going to run away simply because her father has yelled at her or forced her to give up something she enjoys, or better yet—decided to marry her off for his own personal gain. This is a woman used to doing what she’s told. She fears her father and knows that she would be without means of support if she went against his wishes. So what motivates her to run away from this marriage? It needs to be something important—something big to make her break with her nature to do as she’s told. There needs to be a substantial fear to counter the fear she already has for her father, otherwise she has no believable motivation to run.
Same would be true of a hero who suddenly acts like a villain. Or a loving mother who suddenly leaves her family. They need to have solid reasons for the choices they make. If not, the story will be weak. Character motivation is crucial to any story and often this one thing is the difference between a good book and an incredible book that you will come back to time and time again.
Tracie Peterson edited the Heartsong Presents series for 5 years and has taught numerous classes on romance writing. She is the author of over 70 books, including bestsellers like A Lady of High Regard.
I'm heading out of town for a long weekend, but you can find me guest blogging in the next day or so on Kaye Dacus's site where she is talking about writing the romance novel. - Becky
Editor Du Jour Becky