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


Mary Connealy said...

Hi, Tracie.
I'm working on a book right now that's lining up so well as far as Character.

It's not a type I've written before and I'm enjoying messing with my heroine. Her character is just naturally mild mannered, which I never use. I usually have a character so feisty it's all I can do to give her any trouble because she's running everything.

So, this heroine is obedient by nature...and that obedience has translated itself into following the crowd, one step at a time, no major break with her own beliefs, until suddenly she finds herself forced to either break with the people she's been obedient to or do something she absolutely knows is sin.

So she runs which isn't really standing up for herself either. And then, when the hero saves her, she decides to practice being brave with him.

He just thinks she's a nag. And since he's a pretty decent guy, standing up to HIM isn't the world's bravest act either.

I really appreciate you giving me my first break in publishing, Tracie. God bless you.

Beth Loughner said...

Hey, Tracie,

What a great topic. I like a heroine or hero that acts out of character every now and then as long as the reason behind the change is plausible. The author (or myself when writing) has to make me believe that I just might act that way too if given the same circumstances. I'm disappointed otherwise.

And yes, thanks for my real first break into writing, too. You're a gem.


Pam Hillman said...

Thanks for this lesson on character motivation, Tracie.

Cheryl Wyatt posted on this same topic Tuesday over at and we had a great discussion on deepening characterization and what makes characters memorable.

If the author gives proper motivation for a character's actions, then the reader is going to believe just about anything.

Okay, except for Mary having a pet mouse. No way would I EVER believe THAT! lol Come to think of it, Mary, having a pet mouse would go along way toward your characterization for Maxie....

Mary Connealy said...

A Pet Mouse???
And I would have to pay MONEY to have disease bearing vermin in my home?


I actually touched and even played with a gerbil once. A friend had one in high school and after a year or so (okay, gerbils live six weeks, still maybe it was her tenth gerbil) I did finally touch it.
I consider it the kind of dark, ominous, youthful indiscretion that might keep me from running for President if the truth came out.

Mary Connealy said...

No, it wasn't a gerbil. It was a hamster, I'm sure. Don't gerbils have long tails? I'd have never touched one of those.

Of such phobias come great works of fiction. Of Mice...and Murder released in September to the Heartsong Presents Mysteries club.

Pam Hillman said...

True. Apparently that guy...who was it?...Alfred Hitchcock...was terrified of birds. Poor fellow must have been terrified of a LOT of things.

Janet Dean said...

Excellent reminder, Tracie, on motivating characters so their actions and conflicts are believable. It's great fun to motivate characters to break out of their molds. Since I'm stuck in mine. :-)

Mary, one set of my grandkids has a brown and white hamster, Peanut. You're right--no tail. The other has a black and white rat, Allie-- fitting if spelled differently--with a long tail that curls around their necks when she rides on their shoulders. I try not shudder, but that tail gives me the creeps.


Mary Connealy said...

Okay, Janet, you are so GROUNDED from blog comments. Yikes.

Character Motivation reminds me of a line I always thought was hilareous from the movie (It's one of the great classics of course) George of the Jungle.

The narrator says: "Every movie has one really big coincidence and here's ours."

Yes, it's not supposed to be a coincidence. The story, the characters are supposed to have a point and have a reason why they are how they are.

Janet Spaeth said...

One of the important things that Tracie taught me is the importance of character motivation (and being able to say what the internal and external might be, when asked!)to the overall story arc. Using her chapter-by-chapter synopsis structure makes it nearly impossible for me to lose track of that.

And for that, dearest Tracie, thank you so much!

Hope to see you in the Cities this fall???

Eileen Astels Watson said...

I'm seeing "layering" in this. If we are to truly show the motivations behind an unexpected change in a character, is it through the layering, revealing of a three-dimensional character that we can succeed at this? Everyone has contradictory feelings and certain morals or values that trump others, is it through hinting at that variety that we prepare the reader for the big change and start the process of revealing motivation?

Can you tell I struggle with offering believable motivation, or what?

Cheryl Wyatt said...

This is an incredibly helpful article, Tracie!

I've judged so many contest entries lately that were "almost there" except that the character's behavior seemed out of place. And all it would take to remedy it would be having the author strengthen the motivation or properly motivate the character's actions, reactions, decisions or emotions.

I wish I'd been able to communicate this to the entrants as well as you did here! Now I'll have to provide this link on that aspect of future scoresheets.

Thanks for posting this articl, Becky et all. Thanks for mentioning Kaye's blog too. That should be fun and helpful.

Great blog ladies! Thank you for keeping it going. Lots of helpful info for authors in every stage of the game.

Cheryl Wyatt

Sandra Leesmith said...

Thanks Tracie for the great comments on characterization. I think your recommendation to have the character break from their nature or normal patterns of behavior are right on. Those are the characters that stick with me.

Debby Giusti said...

Hi Tracie,
Great post! When a writer can get to the core of her character's motivation it makes everything fall into place. The writing goes much more easily. The pitch works because the editors want to know what makes the character tick. Even the synopsis seems less daunting.

Mega congrats on all your success, Tracie!

Lynette Sowell said...

Great topic! This is something we discussed recently in Nancy Rue's novel class at Glen Eyrie. One of the questions we can ask is: If our heroine doesn't achieve her goal, "So What?" We really need to make it matter to her, and have it be believable. It doesn't have to be high drama, but we must CARE. :)

Missy Tippens said...

Thanks for a great post, Tracie!


The Write Life said...

It's great to see a post from you Tracie! I enjoyed it.

Paige Dooly

Ausjenny said...

I too enjoyed to days post as a reader. it does go well with Cheryls at seekerville this week.

Carrie said...

Thanks for the insight and guidance, Tracie! You have helped and encouraged so many of us over the years. We appreciate you and Jim!